For the Love of Leeks
By Fiona Breslin
Leeks are loved all over Europe. They are the national plant of Wales – remember “Henry V”? In France they are known as “the poor man’s asparagus,” (even if they are nothing at all like asparagus). In the United States, however, this anti-oxidant rich allium vegetable takes a back seat to its better-known cousins, onions, shallots, and garlic. Yet, just like these cousins, leeks are rich in the sulfur volatiles that contribute to their fragrance and taste, as well as to their potent health properties. When it comes to cancer-fighting foods, leeks are one plant we shouldn’t overlook.
According to the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR), leeks are a source of compounds that may help stop the cancer process from starting. The AICR also reports that animal studies have shown components in allium vegetables can slow the development of cancer in several stages in the breast, esophagus, colon, and lung. Furthermore, leeks are an excellent source of vitamins B6, K, and A, as well as minerals iron, and manganese. Leeks also have a reputation in natural medicine as blood tonics, healthy heart defenders, and fighters of the common cold.
Leeks are similar in taste to onions, but milder and sweeter. Unlike onions, leeks do not grow in bulbs. Instead, it is their long white sheaths that are eaten. Leeks are available year round in the United States, but wild leeks (so-called ramps) are a harbinger of spring in the Northeast. They are a seasonal delicacy that can be found fresh at many green markets in early March. They have a spicy bite, and unlike cultivated leeks, the leaves of ramps are eaten too. Ramps are great in sautés, omelets and pastas.
If you’re new to leeks, they look like giant scallions. The white part of leeks is usually used for cooking, so look for ones that have long, thick, white sheaths, with crisp blue- green tops. Avoid any with yellowed or wilted looking edges. Fresh leeks tend to harbor grit, so wash them thoroughly under cold running water after cutting. Let the cleaned, prepared leek sit for at least 5 minutes before cooking. As with garlic, this will allow their healthy and anti-cancer compounds to develop. To learn more about preparing leeks, see our instructional how to video. To check out tips on how to store fresh veggies long-term in the freezer, see our easy and instructional Bag n’ Freeze video.
Though most recipes use the tender white root ends of leeks, don’t discard the dark green tops. They can be a great addition to the stockpot. Similar to onion and garlic, leeks add a lot of flavor to many simple dishes like our Poached Chicken Pot au Feu. Leeks can be roasted, sautéed, steamed, and added to soups or stews. Try them in our warming Leek and Potato Soup. Or, for a great starter, try steamed leeks cold with our Mustard Vinaigrette.
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