Though my Grandma is always adamant that spring only really starts after the 21st of March, I do find myself searching for those early signs of the changing seasons. The lengthening of the days, the small spattering of crocuses and daffodils, the reappearance of green where for so long there has been grey. The seeds that will be the fruits and veggies of the summer have been sown and are beginning to sprout, but that makes early spring a surprisingly sparse time for seasonal produce. Luckily there is a long, green, versatile constant to take us through to the days of plenty. Of course, I am talking about leeks.
Looking somewhat like a particularly girthy spring onion but with a much more subtle taste, it isn’t all that surprising that leeks are a member of the Allium genus alongside onions, garlic and chives. British Leeks, the representative body for all things leek related, has hailed leeks as the most sustainable of British vegetables, and despite their obvious biases I do think they have a point. The whole leek can be used (if you know how), which limits food waste, and its hardy nature means it thrives in the winter and early spring when other produce requires extra energy to stay alive.
Storage and Preparation
As with most veg, it’s best to buy your leeks loose to avoid the plastic sweats. Store your leeks loose in the fridge, or in paper or cotton bags. When you want to use them, take them out and cut off the dark green tops. These are perfectly okay to eat, contrary to popular belief, but they tend to hold onto dirt a bit more so need to be separated and washed more thoroughly. If you struggle a bit with your hands, or just like a quicker option, pre-sliced leeks are readily available in a lot of supermarkets.
Uses and Pairings
Leeks can be used in a huge variety of dishes, either to build a flavour base or as the star of the show. Because of their similar flavour, leeks can be used to substitute cooked onions if don’t have any to hand or want a less potent onion taste. A popular way to cook leeks is to slice them into 1-2cm rounds and fry them in (vegan) butter for 8-10 mins. This on its own is a really great side dish. If you fancy a quick main course, combine these fried leeks with cooked long pasta like spaghetti, a little bit of pasta water and lots of salt and pepper.
To make roasted leeks, slice lengthways instead, so you’re left with two halves and all the lovely layers exposed. This makes them perfect for holding onto additional flavours while they cook in the oven. Drizzle with olive oil, season well with salt and pepper and bake in a pre-heated oven (180 degrees) for 20 mins.
The green ends of a leek can be used to make a great vegetable stock: just combine with other aromatic vegetables like carrot and celery, cut into big chunks, chuck in a large saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring it to the boil and allow to simmer for anywhere between 30 mins to several hours depending on how intense you want your stock to be. Strain off and discard the spent veggies, and use to make a rich leek risotto (recipe coming soon)!
The bright taste of leek is strong enough to cut through particularly creamy and rich foods without being overpowering. Cheese and leek is a classic combination, and can be used for a fancy toastie or a decedent gratin. Starchy potatoes also compliment leeks very well—where would we be without leek and potato soup!? Meaty-tasting mushrooms balance perfectly with fresh leek flavours, especially when combined with some form of plant-based cream and a lot of black pepper.
Like last month’s star veg—carrots—leeks are in season almost year-round. In not needing to be shipped in from elsewhere in the world, they therefore have a very low carbon footprint, so they’re eco-friendly as well as delicious. Especially in these months where UK produce hits a bit of a dry spell, it’s good to know what is actually available to tailor your cooking towards it. Plus, if you know how to use staples like carrots and leeks well, you’re basically sorted for 90% of the year. It also felt just a little bit appropriate to make leeks the star of the show, considering today is St. Davids Day and leeks (along with daffodils) are one of the national emblems of Wales.
Coming Up this Month
As with February, I will be providing plenty of recipes for you to get the most out of your leeks, including my take on a classic bubble and squeak, a pocket-sized leek and mushroom pasty and of course, a lovely leek risotto. I can’t wait to share my leek-based ventures this month, and I hope you try some of these ideas the next time you pick up a leek.