“Oh, oh, oh…,” our dinner guest murmured. “Where did you get these lovely little leeks?” In June it would have been a compliment, but that November, thanks to a delayed planting, my leeks were a pitiful size, lovely or not.
With winter varieties, size counts. You want a beefy leek, a stouthearted leek to hold in the ground until spring. The names tell the story — Giant Musselburgh, Elephant, Large American Flag, Winter Giant.
Leeks are not a quick crop. Even “baby” leeks — sweet, tender and perfect for summer grilling — might take two and a half months after a direct sowing in the garden. A summer leek like King Richard might take three. Some of the super-stocky types take even longer to reach full size before cold weather.
St. Victor, a purple-leaved beauty, needs 145 days. It’s a strain selected from the old French heirloom Bleu de Solaise, which, like most hardy leeks, is blue-green. When you drive through Europe in winter you see rows of blue-green, strap-like foliage in every garden.
If you are Welsh you take leeks seriously. The English have a rose as their emblem, the Scots a thistle, the Irish a shamrock, and for the down-to-earth Welsh it’s a leek. Many old Welsh recipes feature leeks, such as leek pie, or caul, a meaty soup. More significantly, as legend has it, leeks won the day for the Welsh in a battle against the Saxons in 640 AD.
Each Welsh warrior donned a leek in his headgear to distinguish himself from the enemy. Shakespeare, in a caricature of Welshness, had Fluellen, a scrappy Welsh soldier in “Henry V,” sport a leek in his hat.
And to this day patriotic folk wear the pungent symbol on the Welsh holiday, St. David’s Day, March 1 — this despite the daffodil’s ascendancy as a more fitting buttonhole ornament. St. David himself, a learned missionary, lived an ascetic life with a diet of bread, water and fresh greens.
In Maine, you’d want to have your leeks sown by March 15, either indoors or in a cold frame, to get pencil-sized transplants ready to go into the garden in May. This should give you a 20- to 30-day jump on the harvest.
I’d start a variety like Megaton (from Johnny’s Selected Seeds) to harvest in summer and through the fall. For winter, grow the super-hardy Lexton if you have a cold frame, A-frame plastic tent, or greenhouse to keep the ground diggable. The plants can still be harvested come spring, but eventually tough seed stalks arise from their centers, diminishing their use in cooking. I pull the last leeks just before that point and refrigerate them for a few weeks, though there’s still a “leek gap” before summer ones are ready.
Here’s an intriguing tip in a 1910 book by Sutton and Sons, an English seed company. If you cut the flower stalks to prevent seed formation, small round “leek bulbs” will form on the roots and can be eaten like shallots or small onions.
To sow leeks indoors, use 3-inch-deep flats filled with a soilless mix, set in a sunny, warm spot or under grow lights. Sow ¼ inch deep, 1 inch apart in rows 2 inches apart. When it’s time to move them to the garden, choose a cloudy day, setting them 1-2 inches apart for baby leeks, 6 for large ones, in deep, loose, fertile soil.
For a cook, having leeks with white shanks is even more important than having big ones. The green leaves add flavor and nutrients to soups and stocks, but it is the soft, creamy white part that braises so beautifully and thickens a soup with its satiny richness.
The only way to get a long white shank is to blanch it, which means covering the bottom part with soil as it grows. At our farm we plant each leek by making a 9-inch-deep hole with a dibble or trowel and dropping the seedling in, leaving the hole unfilled. We trim the roots to 1 inch long and the tops to 10, so an inch of green sticks out of the hole. As we cultivate all season long, the hole gradually fills with soil.
We harvest the leeks by loosening the roots with a digging fork and pulling them by grasping the base, then cutting the roots and tops right there in the garden. Before I cook the stems, I split and rinse them very thoroughly to get rid of soil lodged inside the many layers.
The garden has kept me well supplied with leek quiches, hot potato-and-leek soup, chilled vichyssoise and other seasonal delights. Should the need arise, I would not hesitate to make the leek broth prescribed by Mireille Guiliano in her book “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” a pure and spartan dish she guarantees will jump-start your weight loss program. St. David would approve.
During the year of my puny leeks, I bought myself a copy of Bernard Lavery’s “How to Grow Giant Vegetables.” On the cover is a picture of its Welsh author, proudly holding an exhibition leek he grew. The white part alone reaches from his waist to the top of his head, mighty enough to take down a murderous Saxon with one blow. Try doing that with a daffodil.