Leeks are a vegetable in the allium family that includes onions, garlic, and scallions. These vegetables are native to all parts of the world and still have wild cousins, ramps.
Alliums contain many healthful nutrients, and at the same time, the sugar they store makes them sweet, with a subtle flavor that compliments soups and stews in the fall. Alliums have been part of cooking in all regions of the world for millennia as a building block to many recipes.
Leeks can be grown at different times throughout the year.
While working at the farmers market, two days before Thanksgiving an anxious woman came up and asked if any of the farmers were selling onions. I could tell she needed them for a specific recipe.
I told her no, but she could substitute leeks for the onions, which were not available. She looked through the vendors’ offerings, found a few other ingredients, and then took off.
Unlike onions, leeks are not dependent on the day length that signals to the onion when to make a bulb and complete it’s growing cycle.
Leeks can be grown in different conditions throughout the year. They prefer cooler temperatures but will grow in most places throughout the summer. They have a long growing season, over 100 days, but this means that they are ready after the onions come to the market.
They are ready in the fall and winter for harvest now. They are cold tolerant. Farmers can keep them in the ground, late into the year, until the soil freezes.
If you want to shop locally, you need to be flexible, working with the available product from your market growers.
Leeks are sweeter and milder than onions.
Leeks have fewer sulfur compounds in them, so they don’t make your eyes water when you cut them.
They are less pungent when eaten raw, but they have more fiber than onions. If you are going to eat them raw, slice them thinly across the grain that runs the length of the vegetable.
In addition to the fiber, leeks have more manganese and vitamins A and K. The more of the green parts that you eat, the more vitamins that you get.
Leeks are a replacement for onions.
Leeks are more manageable to chop than round onions. Cut them in half lengthwise, then make additional lengthwise slices depending on how small you want the pieces. Lay the strips out and cut them across the grain. They can be used interchangeably for onions in soup and stews.
Clean your leeks before cooking.
Leeks collect dirt in the outer folds as they grow. When preparing leeks for a meal, cut them first, and then put the cut leeks in a bowl of water. The leeks will float at the top. Swish them around and then remove the leeks from the water first. Discard the water with the dirt that sinks to the bottom.
You will see recipes, like Braised Leeks, where the leeks are cut in half lengthwise and then cooked. The leeks look great for presentation, but I find that they can be stringy and difficult to eat at the table. I prefer to chop them first and then cook them.
In one of my first restaurant jobs, we had Melted Leeks on the menu. I never made them there but tasted them often and watched. The cook would make them in the morning and then let them cool. They only had to be warmed at service time for each order.
When slowly cooked, leeks seem to melt away. Leeks are perceived as slimy, but I think of them as silky and smooth. You can serve them almost as a sauce on top of steak or chicken. I served them at Thanksgiving and stirred them into my mashed potatoes instead of gravy.
- 3 leeks, dark green ends removed
- 2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
Cut the leeks, white and light green parts, in quarters lengthwise, then cut across the grain into small squares, removing the root. Place the cut leeks in a large bowl. Fill the bowl with water and stir. Allow any dirt to settle to the bottom. First, lift the leeks out of the water, then discard the water. In a large pot with a lid, melt the butter over medium heat, and add the wet leeks. Season them with the salt and stir. Cook slowly over medium heat, for about 15 minutes, until the leeks are very soft. Serve as a side dish with meat, over mashed potatoes or cooked beans, or on toasted bread.
The sweetness of leeks pairs with earthy goat cheese to make a simple and elegant tart. You can vary the crust to use what is more comfortable for you. Prepared pizza dough or frozen puff pastry dough will work almost as well as making your own.
Spread the dough out and then top with the cooked leeks. Top the dough with goat cheese, salt, and fresh ground pepper. Bake at 400 ºF for 14–18 minutes until the crust is browned.
Cut the tart into individual serving sizes and serve with a salad for an easy meal.
Leeks are the Onions of Autumn
In the fall when the onions start to get old, leeks make the perfect substitute.
Use leeks in any soup or stew recipe. Combine them with lighter flavors where their subtle sweetness is more noticeable.
Let the flavor of leeks shine though by cooking them on their own or as the feature to a meal like the Leek and Goat Cheese Tart.
Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her on her blog Food Demystified, Twitter @juliehouse, and Facebook @fooddemystified