Vegetable of the Month for May: Lovely Leeks
As well as being essential flavourings for cold season soups and stews, leeks and other alliums like garlic, chives and onions are the kitchen garden’s storm troopers against winter colds and influenza. All members of this genus have a long list of medicinal properties that include antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic and expectorant actions.
Leeks can be sown any time from January to April, as they are a cool-season crop. They grow easily in most types of soil and need a steady supply of moisture. They are not troubled by pests and diseases. If you forget to sow seeds in time, pop into your local garden centre to buy seedlings, which should be readily available.
- Dig deeply, to at least 60cm, to allow for the length of the ‘blanched’ stems and the extensive roots.
- Enrich the beds by digging in as much compost as possible.
- Seed can be sown directly but it is better to sow in seed trays at a depth of 8-10mm. The seedlings transplant easily.
- Keep the seed moist during germination. Seed may take time to germinate, so don’t lose patience.
- Transplant when the seedlings are big enough to handle.
- If they are longer than 15cm, trim the tops and the roots.
- Space plants 15cm apart. Make holes 15-20cm deep and 3-4cm wide.
- Drop a seedling into each hole, but don’t firm down the soil.
- Important tip: Water with a sprinkler or watering can so that the soil settles around the roots. The hole will gradually close up with subsequent watering. This allows the plants to develop and thicken without difficulty, provided the soil is kept moist.
- When plants are about 20cm high, feed them with a general garden fertiliser. Feed monthly after that.
- As the plant grows, gradually mound up the soil against the stems, up to but not covering the leaf sheaf. This is done to encourage the long stems to stay white.
Harvesting and using
Leeks can be harvested at almost any time if used for flavouring. The green leafy tops are the most delicious part, so don’t discard them. Slice them finely and add them to salads, stir into egg and cheese dishes, or add them at the end of cooking so that you don’t lose their delicate taste.
Growth to maturity, and a more developed white stem, takes about four months. For the best flavour, add leeks at the end of cooking (as with the leaves) and not at the beginning, despite what so many recipes recommend. They have a distinct onion flavour that is much milder than onions.
Leek and potato bake
The classic combination of leek and potato works well in this dish, and we added some other tasty goodies for extra flavour.
6 leeks (with the roots and top leaves removed), sliced
6 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced to ½cm
1 packet (250g) bacon, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup thyme leaves
1 cup cream
1 cup strong cheese, like mature cheddar, grated
Salt and pepper
Parboil the potatoes in salted boiling water. Sauté the leeks and bacon for a few minutes until the bacon is cooked. Add the thyme and season well. Add the potatoes to a casserole dish and top them with the leeks and bacon, then pour over the cream and top with cheese. Bake at 180°C for 30 minutes. Serves 4.
Note: The bacon can be left out for a delicious vegetarian potato bake