Lovely Leeks

The sturdy backbone to many recipes also makes a tasteful addition to the garden.

By Denise Foley

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For me, planning a vegetable garden has always been a simple equation: Small suburban garden + a love of cooking = make room for the most expensive vegetables, which is how I started growing leeks.

A leek is basically a gourmet onion plant and often goes for $2 to $3 a pound—that’s a lot of money for a vegetable, half of which is thrown away in cleaning. Ah, but the snow-white stalk that is left after the tough green tops have been removed makes an aromatic underpinning to a sauté, soup, or stew—one that’s more delicate than the flavor an onion imparts. It’s like the difference between the scent of lily of the valley and a ‘Star Gazer’ lily. You can inhale the sweet scent of Convallaria majalis when you hold it up to your nose; you’re bowled over by the bawdy fragrance of ‘Star Gazer’ from a block away.

Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum) originate in the Mediterranean basin. Dried specimens and drawings found in Egyptian archeological sites suggest they were part of the region’s diet since 2 B.C., and they are mentioned in the Bible (Numbers 11:5, “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic”). The Emperor Nero apparently ate so many to improve his singing voice that he was nicknamed Porophagus, or Leek Eater, which may or may not have been a compliment. By one account, by 640 A.D. leeks had migrated from the Mediterranean and were growing in Britain: Welsh warriors under the command of King Cadwallader stuck leeks in their hats to distinguish themselves from the Saxons in battle. Suffering from nasal congestion? In the Middle Ages, leeks stewed with honey were a remedy for a stuffy nose.

Photos by Patrick Montero

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