Fresh Picked: Leeks

In the movie The Queen, starring Helen Mirren, the scene that caught my eye shows her taking a phone call in the kitchen at Balmoral Castle. Cooks and scullery maids scatter; the queen is left at a table piled high with leeks. They are gorgeous leeks, long and fat, their snow-white stems topped with aquamarine. They are a dish fit for a queen.

Leeks have long had a starring role in the British Isles. The Welsh who defeated the invading Saxons in ad 640 wore leeks in their caps. The Scottish have their cock-a-leekie soup. In the northeast of England the most mammoth specimens compete for trophies in yearly pot leek shows. But Americans seems reluctant to grow them. Oh, I championed leeks every season in my 15 years as host of The Victory Garden. Yet when I ask lecture audiences today for a show of hands, I’m lucky to find a single leek grower.

Plant a leek get a leek. The fat black seed is easy to handle. A mid-February sowing will yield fine transplants by mid-April. It’s even easier to buy a pot of them, maybe 50 or more seedlings in a single clump. Tearing them apart will do no harm.

Leeks are heavy feeders. Give them fertile soil rich in organic matter, and set the transplants every six inches in rows a foot apart. If the soil is well drained, plant them in a shallow trench. This will make it easy to blanch the bases; just pull the soil back into the hollow as they grow. Keep the bed scrupulously weeded and top-dress them a few times, when you are pulling the soil around them.

Restaurants garnish plates with baby leeks harvested almost as they begin to thicken. But leeks aren’t in a rush, and you shouldn’t be either. By a hundred days, they will be getting robust, their neatly folded leaves a deep blue green. Frosts that finish the rest of the garden leave leeks unscathed. They are happy buried in snow. This is when they come into their own, when they become lords of the larder. The Welsh were onto something when they made leeks their crown jewels. However you serve them, leeks rule.

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