Food & Drink Spring a leek

This leggy lily is slow-growing but worth the wait

Whether cleaned, trimmed, and bundled for sale or standing tall in the garden, leeks are at their prime right now. A member of the Allium family of onions, garlic, and chives, leeks look something like overgrown scallions with a mellower, richer flavor that has added depth and character to old world cuisines for centuries. From Belgium to Southern Spain, and from England clear across to central Asia, leeks have been grilled, braised, and fried to the delight of countless generations thanks to their tolerance for a range of growing conditions.

The leek’s creamy white base gives way to silvery green, blade-like foliage, most of which is trimmed away for cooking. Bigger and more fibrous than their cousins, leeks generally are harvested at 1 to 2 inches in diameter. At this stage they’re perfect for braising, though they can be harvested younger and used like scallions. The tender green leaves of very young leeks can be used like chives, but considering the ease with which Alliums grow, it makes more sense to grow both and use each to its best advantage.

Leeks are prolific but slow-growing. Planted from seed they take about 120 days to mature. They like sun but require adequate moisture, a balance that requires a little attention in South Texas. That said, leeks are heat and cold tolerant and easy to maintain. Aside from culinary uses, the tall, silvery-green leaves make a nice visual contrast with leafy herbs and low flowering plants.

Each plant sends up a flower with graceful loops and gently curving gestures that transform the garden into a tableau of Art Nouveau design.

Typically harvested as annuals, leeks are biennials. Let a few go to seed, if only for aesthetic reasons. From the core of the long, draping leaves each plant sends up a flower stalk 3 to 4 feet high, often with graceful loops and gently curving gestures that transform the garden into a tableau of Art Nouveau design. The large flower heads slowly pop open, revealing large white-purple umbels that produce enough seeds for an entire bed the following year.

In addition to seeds, the persistent leek also makes tiny bulblets at the base of the parent, which can be gently separated and transplanted. Some of the really determined bulblets may sprout from the flower head before seeds are harvested. Planted in shade for the summer, small plants will remain dormant through fall and winter, waiting patiently to be transplanted to a sunnier spot in the spring.

Culinary possibilities abound. For a classic French braise, brown whole bulbs in butter, cover with water and perhaps some red or white wine (a little stock if you want it richer), and simmer until tender. Tender leeks are excellent grilled, and parboiled leeks take well to marinades for refreshing summer salads. Used commonly in soups, particularly potato, leeks add a rich depth of flavor. For a real treat, cut leeks into rings, dip in a thin flour-and-egg batter, pan fry in olive oil, and at the last minute add a shot of white wine vinegar. Turn off the heat and cover for a minute to let the vinegar steam with the leeks. Sprinkle with fresh chopped parsley, and eat with a crisp white wine while overlooking next year’s seedlings in the garden.