Legend has it that when the Britons went into battle against the Saxons in the year 633, the Welsh soldiers wore a leek on their helmets as a distinguishing emblem. To the pride of their king, victory would be theirs.
Leeks are the most under-rated and under-used of all vegetables, according to Serif Kaya, award-winning chef of Ottoman Cuisine fame. Kaya's dish of olive oil braised leeks, baby carrots and celeriac has been a favourite flavour combination of mine since I first tasted it a decade or so ago.
Leeks could almost be described as an overgrown, mild sweet-flavoured version of a spring onion, and indeed the leek is a member of the lily family and related to garlic, onions, chives and eschalots. It is widely believed that leeks were among the first plants to be cultivated by humans. 'The ancient Hebrews, Egyptians and Romans were all particularly fond of leeks,' Kitty Morse writes in her fascinating book, A Biblical Feast (1998). 'Leeks grew wild, but were also cultivated in the Holy Land... and typically prepared in vinegar, cooked in pottages or eaten raw with bread. Apicius, an author and eccentric bon vivant who lived around the time of Christ lists a number of recipes for leeks in his cookbook, Apicius de re Coquinaria. Leeks are still as popular in the Near East today as they were in biblical times.'
The leek has been the national emblem of Wales since the year 633 AD, when the Welsh won a battle against the invading Saxons. Apparently, the victory was attributed to the fact that the Briton king’s soldiers wore leeks on their helmets. Who'd have thunk it!? Shakespeare referred to this 'honourable badge of the service' in a scene of Henry V.
When shopping for leeks, bear in mind the smaller the leek, the sweeter and more tender it will be. Choose firm white leeks with crisp and intact green tops. To prepare leeks for cooking, trim off the tough green leaves and the base. It's important to remove any grit that might be trapped between the layers. For this reason, soak whole leeks upside-down in a tall jug or basin filled with water. Or, you can place sliced leeks into a colander and rinse well under running water.
Leeks can be baked, microwaved, poached, sauteed, steamed or stewed; and will greatly enhance the flavour of soups, tarts, pies, quiches and omelettes. Of course, leeks are the quintessential ingredient in Vichyssoise, the much-loved soup made with cooked and puréed leeks, potatoes, stock and cream (watch for my delicious twist on the recipe, coming soon). Leeks are also delicious when cooked until tender and dressed in a simple sauce of fresh herbs. They should be cooked only until soft, not mushy. Browning will generally toughen leeks, however, finely shredded green leek can be deep fried until crisp and used a garnish.
Perhaps one of the nicest leek dishes I've eaten was a terrine of leek, potato, lemon and camembert, prepared by chef, Graham Green (ex Green Herring Restaurant). For this recipe, the leeks are cooked very briefly until just tender, then used to line a terrine dish (leaving a good overhang). Fill with layers of par-boiled sliced potato and a central layer of camembert cheese. Wrap up the bundle with the leeks, then garnish with lemon zest, sea salt, black pepper and melted butter. Press down and allow to set. I've lost my copy of Green's receipt, however if you would like to try this dish the closest I could find was this one.
Do you use leeks in your cooking? Tell me your favourite way of preparing them.
Cooking and writing have been a lifelong passion.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.