And speaking of leeks… Today I planted my favorite of all vegetables. Yes, favorite. Well, perhaps not quite. Tomatoes probably take the number one spot. But a very close second is leeks. Why? Well, the flavor, of course: not quite onion, not quite garlic, soft, subtle, never overwhelming. There’s something very poetic about leeks. They frame the gardening year – leeks are the very first of all the seeds to be planted in the spring, sown in flats in the greenhouse in February; they are the very last vegetable to be harvested in the fall, sometimes from under the snow.
Then, there’s (my) famous leek au gratin… but more on that later.
Leek seedlings in their divided tray just before planting
This year I am growing two kinds of leeks. A new shorter version called ‘Bandit’ that I haven’t tried, and a longer season variety I’ve grown before and loved: ‘Tadorna.’
There are two tricks to growing leeks. The first, as I mentioned, is starting the seeds very early in cell trays. I sow them in my greenhouse; under lights would work just as well.
These divided trays make your life very easy, as when it comes time to plant, you have only to pop your little friends out of the individual cells, and into the waiting trench. And that, the trench, is the second part of the secret. In order to get the long, white stems so valued by cooks, you need to mound up the soil as the leeks mature.
The planting process is pretty simple: Dig a trench about six or eight inches deep, and as wide as your planting space allows. (Leeks need about a 5-inch spacing.) Make sure your soil is as rich as you can make it: plenty of humus (I use rotted horse manure delivered in quantity from a local stable.) plus a generous helping of 10-10-10.
Pop each leek out of the individual cells, and with a narrow trowel, dig a two-inch or so hole. Insert the leeklet, and firm up the soil.
Newly planted leeks in their trench. A bit floppy at the moment, but they'll upright themselves in a few days.
As the leeks mature, you simply slowly fill in the trench around the leeks until the ground is again level, which has the added side benefit of submerging any weeds that may have formed. Planted in July, the first leeks are ready in October here in Boston. But I like to plant mine in the cold frames, as you see here, which enables me to harvest the leeks during the entire winter. In warmer climates you can simply mulch the leeks with hay, and break them out from under the snow. But be sure to use them up before spring arrives: once they begin to flower, they develop a tough, inedible core.
Oh yes, and that leek gratin I mentioned? It’s a dish I serve each year on New Year’s Eve to rave reviews. Kathy Gunst, noted chef and author, whipped this up for me a decade back ago (yikes, time flies!) on my Cultivated Gardener NPR radio show. It’s been a favorite ever since.
RECIPE: Leek Gratin
4 medium size leeks, cleaned as described above and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, very thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh chopped thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoon fresh basil, cut into thin strips
Salt and pepper
About 1/4 cup heavy cream
About 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In an oven-proof skillet or gratin dish, heat the oil over moderate heat. Add the garlic and onion and sauté, stirring frequently, for about 8 minutes, or until turning golden brown. Meanwhile place the leek pieces in the boiling water for about 30 seconds; remove with a slotted spoon. Add the leeks to the skillet with the onions along with the thyme, basil and salt and pepper and cook about 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the cream and cover with foil or a lid and place in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the leeks are tender and the cream is thickened. Remove the foil and sprinkle with the cheese. Bake another 5 minutes and then place under the broiler for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and bubbling. Serve hot. Serves 4 to 6.
OK leeks planted. Now off to weed the perennial border.