When does a root vegetable slip through the cracks?

When it’s a leek.

*crickets chirp*  Okay, not a great joke.  But seriously, do we include leeks in our Year of the Root Vegetable?  They do belong to the onion family, many of which have bulbs that we consume and therefore are definitely root vegetables.  But the part of leeks that we eat is the “stem” (really a bundle of leaf sheaths) and not the part that naturally grows below the ground.

On the other hand, when we grow leeks we usually mound up soil around the plant to blanch it, so it does grow “underground” after all…

Oh well.  No matter how you define leeks, they are a vegetable worth discussing.  And this is a great time of year to discuss them, because guess what?  This is the Great Leek Meeting Point.  Some of us still have leeks in our garden to harvest – look, I do:

(Okay, this was not taken today; you can tell because there’s only a smidgeon of snow.  But most of the leeks are still there.)

And this is also the time of year we ought to be thinking how we’re going to grow our leeks for 2013.  Here are the options:

  • Start from seed:
    • Inside, 8 weeks before setting out in April.
    • Directly in the garden.
  • Buy seedlings.
I’ve done all three of these, and this year my plan is to buy plants, because I don’t expect to have room for a tray of leek seedlings under lights, and all the seeds I have are a bit old to trust for direct seeding in cold and possibly wet spring soil.  But it is perfectly possible to direct-seed leeks; you just need to remember that their growing season is long and harvest will be later, which is fine considering that they’ll last through the winter in the garden if necessary.
I harvested a few of my leeks earlier this week to make leek-potato-parsnip soup.
The blanched (white) sections of these leeks are six to eight inches long, because that’s how much soil I was able to cover the plants with, gradually as they grew, after I planted them last spring in a trench dug into one of my raised beds.  If you have nice rich soil, with plenty of finished compost added, leeks are a very low-maintenance crop; after you’ve filled the trench and piled soil up around them as high as you can, all you have to do is water as needed, keep the plants mulched and weeded, and harvest by pulling out the plants at whatever size you desire.  (Like baby leeks?  Put in your seeds or transplants 2-3 inches apart, and pull every other plant at a cute immature stage, letting the others mature to full size.)
Leek recipes always start with elaborate directions for cleaning, because leeks you buy in stores are usually grown in a sandy soil that gets inside the leaf sheaths and has to be washed out from between the layers.  I’ve never had this problem with home-grown leeks, probably because the compost/top soil mix in my beds doesn’t insinuate itself as well.  Still, once you’ve cut off the roots (see? not a root vegetable) and the loose green leaves, and tidied up the outside of the remaining white-and-partly-green shaft, it’s worth slicing it lengthwise so you can expose the layers and rinse under running water.  Gritty stuff between your teeth while chowing down: not pleasant.
For the soup, I simply sliced the halved cleaned leeks crosswise, then chopped up some peeled potatoes and parsnips (neither of them home-grown, alas) and sautéed all of them briefly in butter.  Then I added stock to cover and let it simmer until the vegetables were soft, and then seasoned it (some pepper, a dash of soy sauce, and a big dollop of mustard).  It’s a comforting warm dish for a cold winter’s day.
Another favorite leek recipe also involving root vegetables?  Sweet Potatoes Anna.
Here’s the Grow It Eat It vegetable profile for leeks.  Start looking for your seeds or plants!

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