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Dublin: 11 °C Tuesday 23 October, 2018
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GIY leeks and a dish that will chase away the winter chills

In this cold weather we’re certainly in a soup, warming hot-pot frame of mind, writes Michael Kelly.

Michael Kelly Grower

THINGS ARE STARTING to get a little scarce from my veg patch after an abundant six months. I’ve not had a great year with carrots and onions (both of which are almost finished), but at least there are plenty of leeks, parsnips and celeriac left.

In this cold weather we’re certainly in a soup/stew, warming hot-pot frame of mind, and all three of those veggies excel in those dishes.

I’m a big fan of leeks

I’m a big fan of leeks – they are relatively easy to grow and a great stalwart of the winter garden. They don’t grab the superfood health headlines the way their allium cousins (garlic and onions) do but they contain most of the same flavonoids and sulfur-containing nutrients.

100g of leeks contain over half of your daily vitamin K requirements, 30% of vitamin A and high levels of vitamins B and C, iron and folate. They are also high in polyphenols, and therefore useful as support for any health issues related to oxidative stress or low-level inflammation.

Leeks are, of course, the core ingredient in the famous French vichyssoise and Scotland’s national soup, cock-a-leekie. When the Scottish speak about a dish that will chase away the winter chills, they really know what they’re talking about – the men wear kilts and no undies for God’s sake.

Cock-a-leekie soup is a wondrously healing, warming affair and well worth adding to your winter recipe arsenal. I also use leeks for making a second-day chicken and leek pie, which is a fantastic way to use up the remains of the roast chicken and a favourite Monday night dinner in the Kelly household.

Leeks are easy to grow

Leeks are quite easy to grow and you can grow a decent amount of them in a relatively small space. I sow mine in module trays before transplanting them to the veg patch outside about two months later.

Though a tiny black seed, they are very reliable to grow. I just pop one or two seeds in each module at 1cm deep and within a fortnight they will germinate and quickly develop into a long, often straggly seedling. If two little seedlings grow in each module, you have a decision to make when planting out.

If you plant them in the same hole you will get two smaller leeks growing together. If you take them apart and plant them in two separate holes, you will get two larger leeks growing apart. It’s really up to you.

I’ve tried both methods and I have to say I prefer growing them apart and getting the larger leeks – the smaller ones are undoubtedly flavoursome, but they are too little for my liking. On Gardeners World I’ve seen Monty Don growing a bundle of 5-7 leeks together, put I don’t really see the point of that honestly. If you want spring onions, grow spring onions.

Check out the details on how to grow them below and do try out the Leek, Potato and Bacon Bake recipe below – I could eat it all the live long day. It’s the perfect side dish or add some crusty bread and a glass of red wine to make a meal of it.

The Basics – Growing Leeks

If you’re a real leek head and want a continuous supply (and you have the space) sow as follows: (1) February – plant out in April, will be ready to eat in early autumn. (2) March – plant out in May, will be ready to eat in early winter. (3) May – plant out in June, will be ready to eat in late winter. I’m a one-sowing kind of guy – so I will generally sow one decent batch of them some time in March/April and start eating them in January.

The traditional process of planting leeks is somewhat of a palaver called “puddling in”. You make a 6-inch hole with a dibber, drop the leek in and then fill the hole gently with water. Do not backfill with soil – over the coming weeks it will fill itself.

I’ve often wondered why you would put the poor little seedlings through such nonsense and stress. Far simpler I think to plant them as you would any seedling. Make a hole, pop in seedling and backfill with soil. Job done. Again, I’ve tried both methods and haven’t noticed any major difference, so I think the latter way is probably easiest.

Leave 15cm between plants and 30cm between rows. Keep the leek bed well weeded. Leeks have to be earthed up during the growing season – this process encourages the bleaching or whitening of the stem. If you don’t earth up you will be left with leeks which are predominantly green with just a small amount of edible white stem. Earth up twice during the season.

When harvesting, don’t try and pull the leek out of the soil by the top as you would a carrot – their roots are surprisingly fibrous and strong. So, use a fork. Winter varieties can stay in the ground until needed, although in a very harsh winter you might need to use them up – constant freezing and thawing will eventually turn them to mush.

Recipe of the Week – Leek, Potato and Bacon Bake

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This bake recipe from Jane Hornby is a cross between two classics – creamy dauphinoise and pommes boulangère (potatoes cooked in stock). You’ve got to love any recipe that has the word higgledy piggledy in it.

Ingredients

  • 600ml chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1kg potato, thinly sliced
  • 6 leeks, thinly sliced into rounds
  • 25g butter
  • 3-4 rashers streaky bacon, snipped
  • 3 tbsp double cream (optional)

Directions

Heat oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6. Put the stock in a large pan, bring to the boil, then add the potatoes and the leeks. Bring back to the boil for 5 mins, then drain well, reserving the stock in a jug.

Meanwhile, butter a large baking dish. Layer up the potatoes and leeks higgledy piggledy, seasoning as you go, then scatter the bacon over the top.

Season well, pour over 200ml of the reserved stock, then spoon over the cream (if using) and cover with foil. Can be made up to 1 day ahead and chilled. Bake for 40 mins, uncovering halfway through so that the bacon crisps.

Michael Kelly is founder of GIY and GROW HQ. 

Click here for more GIY tips and recipes.

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About the author:

Michael Kelly  / Grower

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