It's the right time of year for leeks Garden: The oniony-asparagusy member of the lily family is easy to grow, and tastes great in soup.

September 27, 1998|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Some of life's simplest pleasures are the most sensual. A good book on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The scent of autumn clematis. A steaming bowl of savory potato-leek soup made from your own leeks.

Although they average 100 days from seed to table, leeks are fairly easy to grow. And nothing compares to the pleasure of walking through a fall drizzle to pull a few out of the garden for supper.

Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum) look like a scallion on steroids - thick, white, bulbous stems topped with blue-green, reedy fronds. Although they are practically the Welsh national vegetable (the Welsh actually wear leeks on St. David's Day), few Americans had heard of them 25 years ago, let alone eaten one. But, thanks to international cooking shows, we are now as familiar with this oniony-asparagusy member of the lily family as with the potatoes they complement so beautifully.

Leeks are almost a year-round garden vegetable. Planted in spring, they mature in autumn and, like Brussels sprouts, taste best when nipped by frost. Planted from seed in the fall, they will be ready for harvest in spring.

Planting and cultivation

You can grow leeks from seed sown directly into the earth, or from transplants. Piedmont Plant Co. sells bunches of 100 pencil-thick leek plants ($14.90 including shipping), or you can start your own inside from seed. For fall planting (direct sowing), choose St. Victor, a strain of a French heirloom, Bleu de Solaise, that thrives in cold conditions and stores well in the ground.

Leeks do best in well-drained and well-limed soil with a steady supply of moisture. Working rotted manure and/or compost into the earth just beneath their roots before you put in transplants, or into the whole bed before you seed, will help ensure nice, thick stalks.

There are several ways to plant a leek patch. If you use seed, either sow rows 6 inches apart, or in a 6-by-6-inch grid. Then, when they poke through, thin plants to one every 6-inch square. If your garden is a bunny condo (like mine), lay floating row cover over them to hide them from rabbits and other hungry predators.

Nursery plants eliminates thinning. You can put leek plants into a level or raised bed as with any other transplant, or you can trench them. To trench plant, dig a trench 4 inches wide and 6-8 inches deep. Work manure or compost into the soil at the bottom. Then place seedlings in the trench and fill in dirt to about 1/3 third up their length. As they grow, gradually fill in the trench around them to blanch. Blanching, hiding the bottom 1/2 to b2/3 of the stalk from the sunlight, keeps the stalk not only white but tender and sweet. (They need to have at least 1/2 to 1/2 of their tops sticking out at all times, to use the sun and to keep from rotting.) In a flat or raised bed, you can blanch them by hilling the earth up around them as they grow, or use straw loosely packed around them as a blanching agent. Harvest, beginning when leeks are about 1 inch in diameter, by gently pulling them from the ground, or digging them out with a garden fork.

Potato-leek soup

Leeks, which supply vitamins A, C and E, need thorough cleaning before use. Split them lengthwise and run under water, opening the layers a little to rid the interior of any dirt. They make a great side dish. Braised lemon leeks, hunters leeks with carrots and dried tomatoes, and potato-leek puree are three good choices. But our favorite is creamy potato-leek soup made with homemade herby turkey stock.

To 2 quarts of rich stock, add 3 chicken bouillon cubes, 3 cups of peeled, diced potatoes and 3 cups of cleaned, sliced leeks. (Sauteing the leeks in a little butter beforehand adds flavor.) Simmer until vegetables are soft (about 30 minutes). Puree all, part or none of it, according to preference.

Then add 1 1/2 cups of milk (or half-and-half) that has 3 tablespoons of cornstarch well dissolved in it. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly to prevent sticking. When it is thickened slightly (about 2 minutes after it's boiling), turn off heat. Add pepper and salt to taste, and serve. Snip fresh chives over each bowl.

Sources:

Shepherd's Garden Seeds, 30 Irene St., Torrington, Conn. 06790-6658; 860-482-3638

Piedmont Plant Co. P.O. Box 424 807 N. Washington St., Albany, Ga. 31703; 912-435-0766 or 883-7079

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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