Friday, September 4, 2015

Leeks 101

Leeks are a vegetable that belong to the Allium family (specifically Allium ampeloprasum) which includes onions and garlic. Unlike an onion that forms a tight bulb, the leek is made up of long cylinder leaf sheaths that are bundled. Leeks are blanched which is a growing technique that ensures young shoots are covered to prevent photosynthesis thus the edible part remains pale in color. There are two types of leeks, summer leeks and overwintering leeks. Summer leeks are harvested in the season they are planted and overwintering leeks are meant to be harvested the spring after they are planted. Overwintering leeks are much stronger in flavor and summer leeks are smaller and milder. There are several varieties of leeks. To browse the various types of leeks go to this great page from Cornell University. Native to Middle Asia and the Mediterranean, leeks are an important vegetable in Northern European cuisine and are grown in many European countries. The top five global producers of leeks are Indonesia, Turkey, Belgium, France and the Republic of Korea. Historically, leeks were mentioned in the Bible and claimed to be in abundance in Egypt by the Israelites. Dried leeks have been found in archaeological sites in ancient Egypt along with carvings and drawings that lead scientists to believe leeks have been part of the Egyptian diet from at least the 2nd millennium. The Roman Emperor Nero believed leeks improved the singing quality of his voice and he ate them in soups and in oil. Widely cultivated in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, leeks made there way to North America with the early settlers, though leeks remain a more popular vegetable in European cuisine. 

Did you know leeks are one of the national emblems of Wales and appeared on the coronation gown of Elizabeth II? And the leek is also important in Japan. The leek stalk is the “stick” of Farfetch’d, a first generation Pokemon. For more fun facts about leeks go here and here.

To Store

Store leeks unwashed and untrimmed in the refrigerator. They should keep fresh for one to two weeks. You can wrap them loosely to retain moisture. Cooked leeks are highly perishable and will only keep a couple of days. For an in depth look at leek storage go here. You can also freeze your leeks but beware that you will loose some flavor and texture in the process. To learn how to freeze your leeks go here.
To Nourish

Leeks are high in Vitamin K, B6, C and A. They also contain notable amounts of manganese, copper, folate and iron. Leeks contain a good amount of the flavonoid kaempferol which helps to protect the lining of the blood vessels and provides cardiovascular support. Belonging to the allium family the other health benefits could include oxidative stress relief, anti-inflammatory benefits and protection from cancer. To learn more about the health benefits of leeks go here.

To Prepare 

Leeks have a mild onion flavor. The edible portion is from the white base above the roots to the light pale green part. The dark green parts are edible as well and can be sautéed or used in the making of stock. Leeks can be challenging to clean as there is often dirt between the layers. To prep your leeks for cooking simply trim off the roots, and slice the entire length of the part of the leek you would like to use, either in half or in quarters. Leave the top uncut. Fan out and clean under water before your final dice. Leeks may require additional rinsing after. For additional ways to clean your leeks check out these visual guides from Simply Recipes and Food Network. Leeks can be eaten raw but it is not recommended. Leeks should be cooked and when grilled should be par-cooked first. Leeks do not benefit from al dente cooking methods. They should be cooked until they are soft and can be poached, fried, boiled and sautéed to name a few cooking methods.

To Try 

Perfect for harvest stews, roasts, braises and more, this Staub Burnt Orange Pumpkin Cocotte makes a perfect addition to your autumnal table. Staub cocottes are designed to concentrate flavorful juices, making them ideal for cooking roasts and stews or simmering a variety of seasonal soups. Staub cookware boasts exceptional heat transfer and moves easily from stovetop to table. (Sur La Table, $149.96)