Leeks in the winter garden

january-09-001
Leeks are delicious luxury vegetables that withstand mistreatment and hang in there well into winter. You can eat them all winter if you make some effort to protect them. I don’t give mine any protection at all, and they’re still good.
I start with purchased plants, and nearly always get mine from Territorial Seeds. You can get very fancy about digging a trench, planting the new plants in the bottom of the trench, then gradually filling it in over the summer to get the longest white shafts possible. Or you can use my rough-and-ready method: Stick a trowel its full blade length into well-prepared and rich soil, use the trowel to hold open a slit the depth of the blade, stick the new little plant down into the slit you have created behind the trowel blade until only about an inch of the leaf tips are showing, draw out the trowel blade without displacing the plant, and firm the soil a little. Keep the plants at least 6″ apart each way. When all done, water your new planting. If I get ambitious later in the year, I’ll heap compost around the plants or even build a rough frame about 6″ deep that fits around the leek patch and fill it with mulch to blanch more of the leeks. But when I’ve planted deeply to begin with, I know that I’ll have at least 6″ of white shaft even if I never get around to hilling them up any further. Keep them weed-free through the summer, and make sure they have enough water. If they send up flower stalks, cut the stalk away asap.
They are ready for harvest in the fall, and will hold until January or longer, depending on the variety and the amount of protection they receive. I don’t protect mine at all, and the outside of the shaft gets ratty-looking, but when ready to use them I pull them carefully out of the ground, strip off the ragged outer layers right in the garden, cut the tops off with my garden knife, and am left with leek shafts about a foot long and a little under 1″ in diameter. The books say only to use the white part, but I use the green part too, up through the part where the center looks bright shamrock green but stopping where it starts to look emerald green. I do not find the light green parts tough at all.
They are the sweetest and most delicate member of the onion family and have hundreds of uses, and I advise checking out any good vegetable cookbook for recipes, but my own favorite is classical French creamed leeks. I serve this as the main dish for dinner with slices of good hot baguette to eat with it and a glass of light red wine to enliven the ensemble.

Creamed Leeks
6 fresh tender leeks about 10-12″ long and under 1″ in diameter
4 tablespoons good pastured butter
1 cup good chicken broth
1 cup heavy cream (no substitutes!)
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Cut the well-cleaned leeks in slices about 1/3″ thick. Put them in a strainer and wash well under cold water, turning several times. Let them drain for a while. Heat the butter over medium heat in a large skillet, add the leeks, and saute until they look softened and cooked, turning several times. This should take about 15 min. At the end of this period I like to let them brown just a little at the edges, which deepens the flavor. Now pour in the chicken stock, continue to cook and stir over medium heat for a few minutes until the stock is reduced to nearly nothing, and then add the cream. Turn heat to simmer, salt lightly, and simmer slowly until the cream is very thick, stirring occasionally. This may take up to another 15 min. Check the salt, add pepper to taste, and serve with heated and buttered slices of good baguette.

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