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Luscious leeks

ASHLAND — A wet, freezing winter meant Fry Family Farm didn't bring much to last week's opening of the Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market — save for a large pile of leeks.

Left in the ground throughout the area's cold season, this relative of onion and garlic fared much better than anything else Steve and Suzi Fry tried to "overwinter." Spinach disintegrated in the rain, beets came out stunted from the mud.

Only leeks retained enough character to represent the Talent-area organic farm at the market's opening day. Given months to grow, the Frys' most recent specimens were easily twice as large as leeks harvested in summer and fall. And the harsh weather brought an added bonus.

"The frost brings out the sugar," Fry said.

"They're sweeter and milder."

So sweet, in fact, the Frys' market clerk, Laurie Hultquist, suggests grilling leek slices like one would an onion or even eating the raw leeks in a green salad or potato salad.

"People start off with the idea that they can only use them in potato and leek soup," Hultquist said.

"They're really good in stir-frys or just braised in a really hot pan."

Long a European staple, leeks are under-appreciated in American kitchens, chefs say. The vegetable's onion-like, almost buttery flavor brings a change of pace to soups, quiches and other dishes. Whole leeks will keep refrigerated up to three weeks, Fry said.

The leek's culinary history dates to ancient Egypt, where drawings of the vegetable adorned pyramid tombs. The ancient Romans also valued leeks, considering them superior to onions and garlic, which were regarded as food for the masses.

Centuries later, in the 7th century, legend has it that Welsh warriors wore leeks in their caps to distinguish them from the enemy in their victorious struggle against the Saxons. Thereafter the leek became the symbol of Wales.

Leeks are an essential ingredient in soups like French vichyssoise and Scottish cockaleekie. They give flavor to stews such as the French pot-au-feu.

To prepare leeks for cooking, remove any withered outer leaves and trim and discard the green upper leaves down to where the green begins to pale. Cut off the roots and, unless you want to cook them whole, slice the leeks lengthwise. Rinse well to remove sand and grit that often lodges between the layers.

To cook whole leeks, arrange them in one layer in the bottom of a large saucepan and pour in boiling water or stock until they're half covered. Season with salt and pepper, partially cover the pan and simmer until tender, about 12 minutes or more, depending on size and age.

For a richer flavor, sauté leeks whole in butter until they're barely colored before cooking. Or cook chopped leeks in butter in a covered saucepan over low heat for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

To grill leeks, trim off the roots and the upper leaves, leaving just about 2 inches of green above the white. Slice in half lengthwise, rinse carefully and drain. Place on metal skewers, brush with oil and grill, cut-side down, over medium-hot coals for 7 to 10 minutes. Turn again and continue grilling for 5 to 7 minutes or until tender.

Fry Family Farm will sell leeks through next month for $2 per pound at the growers market, held Tuesdays at the Ashland Armory, 1420 E. Main St., and Thursdays at the Medford Armory, 1701 S. Pacific Highway.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

RECIPE: Vichyssoise

1 stick (4 ounces) butter

5 cups chopped leeks

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 large onion, chopped

3 to 4 cups roughly chopped potatoes

2 quarts chicken stock or water

2 cups heavy cream

Salt, to taste

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

3 to 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives

Melt the butter in a large saucepan, add the leeks, celery and onion and stew slowly until golden and soft, about 10 minutes. Do not brown. Add the potatoes and chicken stock or water, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are cooked through, 20 to 40 minutes, depending on potatoes' age and how finely they're chopped.

Puree soup until totally blended. Add the cream, season with salt and pepper to taste, cover and chill for at least 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings before serving. Garnish with a sprinkling of the chives on each portion.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe from "The Victory Garden Cookbook," by Marian Morash.