Jane McLeod: Leeks a cook’s unlikely ally | SteamboatToday.com

Jane McLeod: Leeks a cook’s unlikely ally

— There are a lot of reasons to grow leeks, the main one being they are one of a cook’s greatest allies in the kitchen, delivering rich, wonderful flavor to culinary dishes. Even though they are easy to grow, are cold-hardy, are pest-free and require little care, they are very much a lowly poster child of the vegetable patch. Admittedly, they require a longer frost-free growing season than we usually can deliver, but that is solved by starting seeds inside at least six weeks before planting or buying seedling transplants that will mature into proper size leeks by summer’s end. Experiment with different varieties for cold hardiness (blue solaise) and earlier maturation (King Richard).

Full sun, deep, fertile soil with rich compost, good drainage, thorough waterings, weed maintenance and time will make for a good leek crop. Feeding with a fish emulsion every month also greatly helps the process. To keep the leek shank blanched until it matures to full size, plant leek seedlings in a 6-inch-deep trench that is gradually filled as the plant shank grows. I find this much easier than trying to bank them up with soil above the surface. If you do mound the soil, do it to just short of where the leaf joins the stem in order to keep it out of the shanks. Keep in mind that leeks also have big root systems, so allow room, setting them 4 to 6 inches apart, for good development. The seedlings are hardy but should be at least a couple of inches tall when transplanted to ensure survival. Unlike their onion cousins that form a bulb (a function of day length more than temperature) a leek’s growth is not sensitive to day length and, with protection, only needs to be finally harvested before the ground freezes.

There is sometimes a misconception that leeks are strong-tasting, but the opposite is actually true, as leeks are the mildest member of the onion family. Leeks don’t have to be grown to the monstrous size (this can take from four to seven months) you often see in the market as they are more tender and flavorful when they are smaller in diameter. Harvest them any time — pencil thin and up — but an average of three months from start to finish will produce baby leeks with stems anywhere from a half-inch to 2 inches thick. I haven’t tried it yet, but apparently trimming off the top of the leaves, about halfway up the plant as it matures, encourages stalk growth. To harvest mature leeks, arm yourself with a garden fork as their root system can make it difficult to harvest successfully just by yanking on them. The white and lightest-green portion of the leek is consumed directly, but save the leek greens to enrich stock or soups. Leeks don’t store well, maybe a week in the refrigerator vegetable drawer, so harvest them as needed — they’ll just be sitting there — waiting.

Patience is probably the biggest ingredient needed for growing leeks, but soon you’ll see they are indispensable in the kitchen, and you’ll find yourself using them more and more and with excellent results.

Jane McLeod is a master gardener through the Colorado State University Extension Office in Routt County. For more information, call 970-879-0825.

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