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Dublin: 13 °C Thursday 17 October, 2019
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From the Garden: Leeks don't get the recognition they deserve

Leeks often don’t grab the health headlines the way their allium cousins – garlic and onions do. But they contain most of the same flavonoids and sulfur-containing nutrients, writes Michael Kelly.

Michael Kelly Grower

NOW THAT MY vegetable patch is really starting to wind down for the winter months, there are just five fresh vegetables left in the ground holding the fort: Parsnips, carrots, celeriac, kale and leeks.

There’s a fine crop of leeks this year in the garden. While there are still so many other wonderful vegetables (such as celeriac, carrots, pumpkin, squash etc) to eat from the veg patch and from the larder, we try to hold off until post-Christmas to start delving into the leeks.

In fact, the St Stephen’s Day stalwart of Turkey and Leek pie is normally the first outing for them  -a whopping 2kg of them in fact.

Leeks often don’t grab the health headlines the way their allium cousins – garlic and onions do. But they contain most of the same flavonoids and sulfur-containing nutrients, writes Michael Kelly.

100g of leeks contain over half of your daily vitamin K requirements, 30% of vitamin A as well as high levels of vitamins B and C, iron and folate.

There is a traditional (if rather unlikely) belief that there is a link between a strong voice and the consumption of leeks.

The Roman emperor Nero supposedly ate them daily to make his voice stronger. The Romans are credited with introducing leeks to these parts and they did well here since they are unaffected by winter cold.

They were so popular across the Irish sea that they became the national emblem of Wales and the national soup of Scotland.

The leek remains an important vegetable in many northern European cuisines and is 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 in the winter for God’s sake.

Cock-a-leekie soup is a wondrously healing, warming affair and well worth adding to your winter recipe arsenal. I always think that ‘soup’ is somewhat of a misnomer here – it’s far more substantial than that more like a chicken and leek stew.

The wonderful name apparently derives from a mispronunciation. When Mary Queen of Scots left France to claim the Scottish throne in 1561, she brought her chefs along with her and one of her favourite dishes was Coq au  Leek (rooster with leek).

It’s hard not to smile when imagining how quickly that morphed into cock-a-leekie in Scotland.

Growing Leeks

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 2 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 generally sow one decent batch of them sometime in March/April and start eating them in December.

The Basics – Puddling In

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 heard Klaus Laitenberger in a talk, wondering why we would put the poor little seedlings through such nonsense and stress. He advocates planting 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 difference, so I think his 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 – Cock-A-Leekie Soup

This is James Martin’s version of the healing Scottish soup.

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 medium chicken, jointed into pieces
  • 180g smoked bacon lardons
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 2 celery sticks, chopped
  • 1-2 leeks, washed and cut into thick rounds (tops reserved)
  • A splash of white wine
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ½ bunch thyme sprigs
  • 15-20 stoned prunes

Directions

Heat the oil in a large heavy-based saucepan. Fry the chicken pieces in batches until golden brown, then remove and set aside.

Add the bacon, carrots, celery and leek tops, and fry for 5 mins until it all starts to brown.

Pour off excess fat. Splash in the wine and boil rapidly, scraping the bottom of the pan. Return the chicken pieces with the herbs and add enough cold water to cover.

Slowly bring to the boil, then simmer for 40 mins until the chicken is tender. Remove the chicken to a plate, cover with foil and leave to cool slightly.

Strain the soup into a clean saucepan and discard all the other ingredients. Leave to stand for a few mins and skim off any fat that rises to the top.

Pull the meat from the chicken bones and tear into large chunks. Simmer the soup with the chicken, leeks and prunes for another 20-30 mins. Season to taste and serve with really good bread.

Michael Kelly is an author, broadcaster and founder of GIY.

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Michael Kelly  / Grower

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