Another shipment of seeds arrived at my house last week. That, coupled with the sunshine we've had lately, has only reinforced my itch to get outside and get gardening.
Included in the order was one of my favorites, baby leeks. This is all part of my plant to create a greens and onions border around my vegetable garden this summer. Part of that plan includes the baby leeks, which will, I hope, thrive alongside fancy lettuces and colorful chards. I only hope they look as good in the garden as they do on the seed packets - and in my head.
I love having leeks on hand to use in my kitchen. There isn't much better comfort food than a pot of potato leek soup simmering on the stove.
In fact, when I bought my new stove several years ago, I had a saucepan of leeks and garlic sweating in a pot on my old stove when the delivery men came to door. They asked if they could install my new stove and I told them, ''not right now, thank you, the husband will do it later.'' I didn't want to disturb what was going on in that soup pot.
I started growing leeks a long time ago because I couldn't find them anywhere, but now they are easy to find in most large grocery stores. Leeks not only need a long season, but they need blanching as they grow. This is not the same type of blanching we do to vegetables just before we shove them into freezer bags for the winter; that's something different. That type of blanching stops the enzyme action of the vegetables, slowing decomposition and allowing for longer storage.
Blanching in the garden also stops something else, photosynthesis. We learned in fourth grade that plants use the process of photosynthesis, or capturing light, to create food for themselves. The pigment chlorophyll, a substance stored in the plants' chloroplast cells, is available in varying degrees in plants. Chlorophyll is what turns the plant green. Blanching, or covering up portions of the plant to block photosynthesis from occurring will keep that part of the plant from turning green. Blanching is done to vegetables, such as celery, cauliflower and leeks. We blanche our growing vegetables because the white portions are sweeter and more tender than the bitter greens portions of those plants.
To blanche cauliflower it is typical to pull up the large leaves just below the forming flower head and tie them in a topknot over the young buds. Like broccoli, the part of the plant we eat are the unopened flower buds. Blanching leeks is a bit trickier and can begin as soon as they are planted outside.
Because they need a longer growing season, leek seeds should be started indoors at least eight to 10 weeks before putting the plants outside when we are sure there won't be any more frosty nights. I usually plant leek seeds about the same time I start onions, the first two weeks of February.
While they are growing inside, I don't worry about the need for blanching. They are still quite small, smaller even than scallions or bunching onions by the time they go outside, so there is still plenty of time.
The easiest way to blanche leeks is to plant them in trenches. I start with a trench about six inches deep. I put the leeks in the bottom of the trench and pull up enough soil so only the top couple inches of leaves are showing. The soil should be well amended with compost to keep it from becoming packed too tightly. The site where you plant your leeks also should be well
As the plant grows, continue to pull soil up around the stalk. The higher up you are able to mound the soil, the more white part you will have on the leek.
If you use leeks at all, you know they are pretty dirty plants. Because they are blanched while young, dirt and sand will accumulate within the layers deep in the stem. When cooking with leeks, it is best to cut off the root end and then slice the leek lengthwise to make it easier to wash inside all of those layers. It isn't difficult and doesn't take a lot of time.
Growing your own leeks is rewarding and fun, and it enables you to try varieties that can't be found in grocery stores.