I find that often the more I get to know people, the more I understand their story, aspects of their personality and the more I like them. My perception of their appearance even changes — I remember when I first moved here, I couldn’t tell the difference between a set of three brothers. Now that I know them as individuals, it’s ridiculous to think I couldn’t tell them apart, but I just wasn’t able to easily differentiate.
The allium family can provide us with a similar kind of experience. There are so many of them, and they all look and taste the same — until you start to get to know them. Onions, leeks, shallots, garlic, scallions, green onions obviously all belong in the same family and have related flavors, but each one has particular roles in which they shine.
We’re experimenting with leeks this week. I’ve only ever used them a couple of times since they’ve always seemed like the too-fancy, expensive cousin of onions. It’s a slightly ironic reputation, as The Joy of Cooking calls leeks the asparagus of the poor; there’s really no reason they should be relegated to high-society dining.
The process of growing leeks is definitely not too fancy, either. While we don’t know this from personal experience, as our attempt to start leeks this spring yielded precisely nothing, it seems to involve dirt and compost and other messy things. Leeks are typically planted in trenches that are gradually filled in as the plants grow, blanching the stems as they find themselves progressively underground.
This deliberate method of soil blanching requires very thorough cleaning once leeks are in the kitchen since sand and dirt have infiltrated the layers. If I’m going to be using them chopped, I like to go ahead and slice them up, and then immerse them in a bowl of water, sloshing them around and letting them soak a bit before scooping them out of the water. Otherwise, you can halve them and fan out the layers in water, trying to encourage the dirt out of the crevices.
It might seem like a lot of work when you could just dice up an onion, and while I’ll still maintain that to be an acceptable substitute, it will always be a substitute and never quite obtain the subtle yet distinct grassy notes of a meltingly sweet leek.
They’re so delicious that the Bible notes the Israelites longed specifically for leeks during their hiatus in the desert. Wilderness nomads weren’t the only fans, however — legend has it that Nero ate leeks every day to make his voice stronger, that they were a very popular vegetable during the Middle Ages, and that they could alleviate the pain of childbirth and protect against lightning strikes.
What I learned that really clinched my new affection for leeks, though, is that they are the national symbol of Wales. Bet you didn’t know that!
Welsh devotion to this vegetable is credited to St. David, who, in the sixth century, encouraged his troops to wear leeks in their helmets to distinguish friend from foe in a battle against invading Saxons. The defense was successful, and now every year on St. David’s Day, everyone commemoratively wears a leek and maybe eats a raw leek. The background colors of the Welsh flag are green and white, at least somewhat due to the colors of leeks!
If an entire country is so inspired by leeks, it’s time we got a little more familiar with them in our own kitchens.
Amanda Miller writes a column about local foods for The Hutchinson News. She teaches classes at Apron Strings and makes cheese on her family’s dairy farm near Pleasantview. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org