I’ve always loved leeks because they’re an early-spring vegetable that signals the onset of warmer days and the beginning of all the great bounty our Garden State is renowned for. I also love leeks because of the unique flavor they bring to so many dishes; they look like enormous scallions, and are the sweetest and mildest of all the onions.
ALL ABOUT LEEKS
Leeks are in the same vegetable family (allium) as onions and garlic, but they taste sweeter and milder than onions. Leeks are made up of elongated, white bulbs with broadening, darkening green leaves at their tops; the bulb comes to an end at a point, often with roots still attached. While the bulbs and lighter green leaves are edible and can be eaten raw or cooked, the darker green leaves are much tougher and, along with the roots, should be removed before eating or cooking.
While leeks have sadly never played as big a role in American cooking as they have in European, especially French cuisines, their popularity here continues to grow over time. Cream of leek soup is delicious—my mother used to make a version that I loved and still remember vividly—and leeks add a wonderful flavor to other stews and soup stocks. They’re also delicious braised and served almost as you’d serve asparagus.
Rich in flavonoids, an antioxidant, leeks are believed to have anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic and anti-cancer properties. Leeks are also high in vitamin C and fiber, and the leaf tops are a great source of beta-carotene (like carrots).
SEASON, SELECTION & STORAGE
Because they’re grown in various parts of the country—California, Florida and Texas are major producers—leeks are available nearly year-round. However, they’re best and most plentiful from late fall until early spring.
When selecting, look for leeks with crisp, green tops and whiteness on the lower two or three inches. Avoid leeks that have soft spots or are yellowed or fibrous-looking. Smaller leeks are usually the most tender.
To store leeks, trim the roots (but don’t cut them off entirely or else the leek will fall apart). Remove any limp or discolored leaves, trim the tops a little, and store the leeks in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Be careful, however, not to leave unwrapped leeks near other foods; like onions, they can readily transmit their odor and flavor to milk and other foods in the refrigerator.
The challenge when cooking with leeks is that they’re almost always dirty. When leeks are grown, soil is piled up around them so that more of the leek is hidden from the sun (making the hidden area lighter in color and more tender). The very process that ends up producing a beautiful leek with a long, pale body also results in sand and dirt getting lodged deep inside the leek.
To clean and prep a whole leek, place the leek on a cutting board, insert the tip of a sharp knife about ¼-inch below the lowest opening in the leek, and cut straight through, up to and through the green ends of the leek, leaving the pale part of the leek whole. Fan open the leek and place under cold running water to rinse out any dirt or sand. If the leek is especially dirty, you may want to make another similar cut through the leek to be able to further fan it open. Then cut off as much of the dark green tops of the leek as you want (we like their taste in our household, so we typically retain about 2–3 inches of the dark green part). Discard the dark greens or save them to flavor soups or stews, or to make stock. Also, when you cut at the root end of the leeks, stay as close to the roots as possible—this will hold the leeks together when you’re cooking them whole.
If you’re adding leeks to soups, use the whole leeks without trimming them. If you’re serving leeks as a vegetable dish, trim off the green ends but consider saving them for soup stock. Leeks are especially sweet and delicious braised whole in water or chicken stock—served warm with a bit of butter and seasoning, or cold in a vinaigrette dressing. Raw slices of the lower white portions taste great in salads, too. Leeks are, of course, also one of the leading players in a classic potato-leek soup, which my wife Bette loves to make in April. It’s a hearty and nutritious soup during this transitional time from winter to spring, and I know you’ll enjoy it, too!
Bette’s Best Potato-Leek Soup
- 2 bunches leeks
- 6 medium-to-large potatoes, cubed
- 1 cup half-and-half
- 2–3 tablespoons butter
- ½ cup onion, chopped
- 1 quart chicken broth
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
- 4 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded (optional)
Clean and chop leeks. Heat butter, add leeks and onion, and cook until tender. Add cubed potatoes and broth, and cook until tender. Add half-and-half and simmer for 20 minutes more. Add seasonings, adjusting for taste if necessary. Add parsley and cheddar cheese (if desired), then stir, serve and enjoy!
About “Produce Pete” Napolitano
With over 65 years of experience in the produce industry, New Jersey’s own “Produce Pete” Napolitano is a renowned fruit and vegetable expert, author and television personality who’s appeared on a highly popular segment on NBC’s Weekend Today in New York, broadcast every Saturday morning for over 27 years. For more information, visit Pete’s website.
About Susan Bloom
A contributor to New Jersey Monthly and a variety of other well-known local and national publications, Susan Bloom is an award-winning New Jersey–based freelance writer who covers topics ranging from health and lifestyle to business, food and more. She’s collaborated with “Produce Pete” on a broad range of articles for more than a decade.