For the uninitiated, like myself, they look like super-sized spring onions at first glance. On closer inspection, you'll notice that they are not only bigger but also tougher. I have to admit that I was initially quite intimidated by leeks, and very curious to get to know them better. I was fortunate to have the guidance of Rachel Hanawalt of the blog Simple Seasonal to tackle this completely unfamiliar vegetable in our very first CSA share. So this week on the Spring Discovery series, we are talking about leeks, for me the gentle giants of the allium family.
An avid supporter of CSA (community supported agriculture), Rachel knows all about the joys and confusion that can come from receiving unfamiliar vegetables. "The first year we had a CSA share there was a huge learning curve with all of the unfamiliar produce we received, but by the end of the year we fell in love with the experience of eating fresh, local and seasonal produce," she told me, counting leeks, kohlrabi, daikon radish, pea shoots, garlic scapes, okra, frying peppers and heirloom squash among the discoveries she's made since.
The idea for her blog Simple Seasonal stemmed from the desire to make the most of local, seasonal produce. "Eating seasonally and eating locally are synonymous in my kitchen. My menu and blog are built around the food I get through my CSA share and from other local farmers," she said. "That doesn’t mean I don’t ever buy strawberries in February, but 75% to 80% of what my family eats each week is locally sourced depending on the time of the year."
If you're interested to find out more about CSA, here are Rachel's 21 reasons you should join a CSA. The privilege of eating vibrant, just-harvested produce is something I enjoy every much. "If you're part of a CSA, say goodbye to wilted greens and tasteless tomatoes. Your produce will be harvested when it's ripe and, in most cases, find its way into your kitchen within a day of being picked. This means better flavor and more nutrient-rich produce," she wrote. And don't forget the "access to heirlooms and more unusual produce varieties, and the fun that comes with trying new things!"
The first thing I learned about leeks is they need to be thoroughly washed with a special method to remove all trapped dirt, something we will definitely get into in a bit. And secondly, I was very happy to find out that, despite the hardy appearance, leeks are gentler in taste than onions and spring onions, and when boiled become melt-in-the-mouth tender and sweet. That comforting quality and texture inspired me to add leeks into the soothing egg drop soup.
This recipe is really easy and requires only a handful of simple ingredients, like stock (or just water) and eggs. The silky swirled egg curd is the star of the soup, called "egg flower" in Chinese, and boiling leeks into the soup certainly adds a nice body and depth of flavor.
Getting to Know Leeks with Rachel Hanawalt of Simple Seasonal
Leeks in a nutshell: Leeks look like large green onions, but are thicker in texture and are milder in flavor. They have a white cylindrical stalk, which is the edible part of the plant. The stalk fans out with flat green leaves at the top. Nutritionally, leeks are high in vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin K, vitamin B6, folate, iron and manganese.
Additionally, they contain the flavonoid kaempferol, which is known for protecting the health of blood vessels by maintaining the health of the endothelium and causing the blood vessels’ dilation. Leeks contain a good concentration of antioxidantpolyphenols, which are also protective of blood vessels and cells, by preventing oxidative damage. It could be said of leeks that they are heart healthy.
Describe the taste: Leeks are a part of the allium genus of vegetables, along with onions, garlic and shallots. The taste of leeks is milder and sweeter than other members of this genus. Their flavor is often described as a mild onion flavor with hints of garlic. When eaten raw they are crunchy. When cooked they become silky and their sweetness intensifies.
How to select and store: Leeks are typically harvested when the stalk is 6 to 10 inches in length and 2 inches in diameter. Smaller leeks are preferred as they are more tender in texture. Store them in an airtight plastic bag for up to 5 days if you purchased them from the grocery store, or up to 7 days if they are freshly harvested.
How to prepare: Leeks tend to hold onto dirt and grit, so it's important to wash them well. If you plan on chopping your leeks, the easiest way to wash them is to start by cutting off the leafy top. Leave the end with the roots intact. Then cut them lengthwise, starting about an inch above the root end. After you've made your first cut, give the leek a quarter turn and cut it in half again, so that it's now cut into fourths but still held together at the end with the roots. Now you can fan them out under running water and wash off the dirt.
Once they're clean, just chop them up and discard the root end. If you want to keep the leeks in larger bite sized pieces then cut the ends off and cut into bite-sized diagonals. Next, take care to wash them well by swishing the pieces in a bowl of water, letting them soak for a few minutes, and then swishing them again before draining and drying.
How to use: Leeks are native to the Eastern Mediterranean region of the world. They are traditionally seen in Italian and French cooking. Both of these culinary traditions have been heavily influential in American cooking, thus leeks have a place in American cuisine. They are used pretty interchangeably with onions, keeping in mind that they are milder in flavor. They can be cooked or chopped and served raw.
Can leeks be used interchangeably with spring onions? How to tell them apart: Leeks are much larger than spring onions and their leaves are thicker. Also spring onions have a stronger smell and taste than leeks. The two vegetables can be used interchangeably in recipes, keeping in mind that leeks are milder and have a hint of garlic to them. Leeks are also sweeter and thus caramelize better than green onions. Their difference will change a dish, but not necessarily in a bad way.
Fun fact: Leeks are the national emblem of Wales, as in 640 AD they were worn on their hats in battle to distinguish themselves from their enemy. In ancient Greece, leeks were prescribed as a cure for nosebleeds.
This post is part of the Spring Discovery series, where we put the spotlight on a new vegetable every week. Don't forget to come back next Wednesday for another spring vegetable. In the meantime, drop by Rachel's blog Simple Seasonal to learn more about CSA.
Chinese Egg Flower Soup with Leeks
Only five ingredients are required to make this comforting soup. The idea to flavor the soup with spices came from The Kitchn, and it's completely optional. You can use all or a few of the spices suggested, or not at all. This recipe serves 2 and can easily be doubled.
4 cups vegetable stock or water
3 to 4 medium leeks, dark leafy top removed, cleaned (as above) and sliced into small pieces
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 large eggs
Soy sauce or salt, and pepper, to taste
1 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
6 whole cloves
1 teaspoon peppercorn
In a pot, bring water or stock to a boil. Then lower the heat, add the spices (if using) and allow to simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the spices. For convenience, wrap the spices into a small ball with cheese cloth for easy removal. Add leeks and simmer for another 10 minutes, or until the leeks are soft. Scoop out some soup into a bowl and whisk in the cornstarch. Pour the cornstarch back into the soup and stir to combine.
In the meantime, whisk the eggs in a medium bowl. Then slowly drizzle the eggs into the soup with one hand as you gently stir or whisk the soup in a circular motion with the other hand. Stir quickly for smaller egg swirls and slower for chunkier pieces of egg. Add soy sauce or salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.