If you don't really know what leeks are, they look like a green onion or a shallot on steroids. Leeks are so much larger than their more common brethren, but they're not more pungent. They are more like a gentle giant . . . a favorite uncle . . . a kindly grandparent. I don't really know why I like leeks. They're good for you, of course, but that's what we expect in our vegetables; but I"m not likely to pull a leek out of the dirt and munch on it raw. This is especially true since you need to really wash them to get the dirt from between the layers. However, when you see them at farmers markets, grab a bunch to begin experimenting with.
Some people slice leeks lengthwise and bake them in butter; that's mostly the British. I prefer to slice them across the grain into rings. By slicing them crosswise, you can see if they need to be soaked to remove any sand or dirt (mostly found in the dark green ends). This also helps soften the some time woody center sections found at the root end. Also when you start sautéing them in olive oil or butter, they break apart into little rings as you stir them. The same happens when you throw them into stews and soups. When I"m going to add them to dishes, I usually add them near the end of the cooking cycle, so they retain their color and crunch; however, slice the rings very thinly. (See the remark about woody center sections.)
I like to use a cup of chopped leeks in my recipes (only about 45 calories - raw). You can use them for taste, volume and nutrition. I let them rest for about five minutes after I've cut them to enhance their taste; this need to rest is also true of garlic and onions. All three of these veggies belong to the allium family.
Leeks do well in cold weather, which is one of the reasons they are so popular in Britain and northern European countries. They've even been honored as the national emblem of Wales. In my Pacific Northwest neighborhoods, they grow extremely well, too.
In the past, most nutritional research for reducing the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease has not included leeks, but rather their close cousins, the garlic and onions. With the nutrient make-up of leeks as alliums, they should be in the spotlight. Here is what the Linus Pauling Institute as to say about these studies, "Allium vegetables, including garlic and onions, are the richest sources of organosulfur compounds in the human diet. To date, the majority of scientific research relating to the health effects of organosulfur compounds has focused on those derived from garlic." LPI has conducted studies on selenium-enriched ramps (wild leeks). It's hoped that as leeks continue to increase in popularity there will be more studies involving them alone.
I'd love it if I could tout leeks here as the elixir of life. Along with garlic and onions, leeks are Allium vegetables, which are "the richest sources of organosulfur compounds in the human diet," according to The Micronutrient Information Center, a rich resource offered by the Linus Pauling Institute (LPI). I gather from LPI that most scientific research on the health effects of organosulfur compounds has not focused on my friend the leek. LPI notes, "scientists are interested in the potential for organosulfur compounds derived from garlic [emphasis mine] to prevent and treat chronic diseases," so I have to be careful about my leek bragging. Yet I am heartened that LPI also says, "The results of a few epidemiological studies suggest that high intakes of garlic and other Allium vegetables (e.g., onions and leeks) [emphasis mine] may help protect against gastric and colorectal cancer."
I expect leeks to increase in popularity as a food; I also hope that evidence from further research will justify, health-wise, my gusto for them.
I have three favorite leek dishes. One combines mashed sweet potatoes, leeks, and grated horseradish, to taste, for a side dish that should have everyone talking (or gasping if too much of the pungent root horseradish is added). My second favorite is a creamed leek gratin, which, besides leeks of course, features parsley, English cheddar cheese, milk or cream and whole grain bread crumbs, baked in the oven. The third dish is a leek tart with three variations. Instead of a tart crust, as an experiment, I used a corn tortilla for some of the tarts, a flax flour tortilla for some and a large cookie-cutter round of whole grain Roman Meal bread with a quick dunk in a French toast solution for the other portions. You might try Roman Meal whole grain bread for the rounds. I placed the rounds and tortillas into a large muffin tin, putting a slice of Gouda cheese in the bottom of the cup and then spooning in a combination of salted & peppered, caramelized leeks, cream cheese, and then sprinkled shredded Parmesan on top. Baked at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes, they were pretty tasty. I preferred the bread crust, while Peg preferred the flax flour tortilla. Refrigerate leftovers, if any.
It's easy to incorporate leeks into your diet, even if you don't want to make up a new recipe. Simply cut leeks up and throw into your ramen noodle soups, omelets, stews, porridge or mix them in with other vegetable dishes. As Helen Keller said, "Life's an adventure or nothing at all!" Or, put on your creative chef's hat and create your own leeks experiment. You could be the new lord of the rings.
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