Tag Archives: wild leeks

Leeks!

One of my favorite flavors to cook with is leeks. They have a unique and interesting mild onion taste and are part of the allium family that also includes onions, garlic, shallots, scallions and chives. Last year, I found I had wild leeks (ramps) on our WI property and have really enjoyed finding, harvesting and cooking with them (see Spring Leeks (aka Ramps)).

But they are only around for a short period in the spring, and I have to be careful not to harvest too many or run the risk of wiping out the wild colonies. I’d rather err on the side of harvesting too few than too many and be sorry in a few years.

So what to do? How about grow some cultivars in my own garden? I’ve already started growing my own garlic, onions, shallots and chives. So how about adding leeks!

It seems like as with most alliums in a home garden, it’s best to start with some type of starter plant or bulb rather than seeds. In that regard, a numbers of sources sell lots of different varieties of leek seeds, but only a couple of varieties come as starter plants. I decided to make it easy on myself and ordered King Richard (Allium porrum) starter plants from Johnny’s Seeds.

It was a toss up between the King Richard and Lancelot (Allium ampeloprasum) leek plants. King Richard is an early season leek, maturing in just 75 days, is frost-hardy but will not overwinter, while Lancelot is a mid season leek, maturing in 105 days, and is winter hardy.

My packet of starter leek plants came in early spring, a few weeks before the last frost date. Leeks are cold season plants, so they should be planted before the last frost date. They’ll tolerate a light frost just fine and need the extra growing time. Like garlic, shallots, and potatoes, they have their own unique way to be cultivated. In order to keep the nice white part of the leeks white, the growing plants need to be blanched, which means that part of the plant needs to be grown out of sunlight. You can grow them in trenches that you fill in as the plant grows, or plant in holes using a dibbler. I used the dribbler method, although I had to improvise with a thick garden stake last year. I now have a dibbler and it’ll be much easier to do this year.

In early spring, in light, soil poke holes with a dibbler or thick stake, 6 inches deep, 6 inches apart, in rows 24 inches apart. 

Drop one plant in each hole leaving only 1–2 inches of the leaves above the soil surface.

Do not fill in the soil around plants, but let rain or irrigation or rain slowly fill in the holes. This allows for self-blanching of the edible white part. If need be, later in summer soil can be pushed up against the growing plant to increase the white blanched part.

I staggered my leek and garlic plants since they are opposite in growing seasons (which is why my garden above in the planting photos looks “messy”). The garlic is planted in the fall and harvested mid-summer, the leeks planted in spring, harvested in late summer/fall. Leeks can be grown in between many early vegetables, but keep away from legumes like beans since the leeks will inhibit their growth.

Leeks can be harvested anytime late summer (after they get about 1 inch in diameter) through early winter. Best way is to dig around the plant to loosen the soil, and then give a good pull.

Most leeks are winter hardy and can withstand light to hard freezes depending on variety. Harvest as you need them, they stay fresher in the ground than in your refrigerator.

Unfortunately for me, I got a little cavalier with the plants in my Wi garden and the ground froze solid before I got all of the leeks out.  I’m hoping they survive the winter and I’ll have fresh spring leeks 😔

In early winter, before the ground freezes solid, harvest whatever you have left, peel off the dead outer leaves and trim the roots and leaves. Store in the refrigerator crisper drawer until needed.

To use in cooking, trim off the roots and cut off the tops where the white is turning light green. Generally, only the white and lightest green parts are used for cooking. Then cut in half and rinse well. Because of how they are grown, dirt and sand often finds its way between the leaves and needs to be rinsed out.

They can now be blanched for freezing, or used fresh in your favorite leek recipe. A few of mine are my Thanksgiving Leek, Apricot and Chestnut Stuffing (recipe here)

Shrimp, Leek and Spinach Pasta from Real Simple is wonderful for a quick, tasty dinner.

Spinach, Goat Cheese and Leek Quiche. The original recipe calls for chives, but I like to substitute sautéed leeks for the chives, and to simplify things I often use a refrigerated Pillsbury pie crust. This is a staple in our house for holiday brunches.

I’m getting ready to order my plants for this year. I think I’m going to try the Lancelot variety from Dixondale Farms. Lots of good advice on growing onions, leeks and shallots on their website.  Johnny’s has tons of great advice too!

So many ways to use these versatile, mild onions. What’s your favorite?

 

Spring Leeks (aka Ramps)

This past spring while wandering my Door County, Wisconsin woods, the ground was covered with beautiful, light green leaves.

Wild Leeks

I knew it wasn’t trout lilies, since the leaves weren’t mottled, but I also knew it looked familiar.  Without a flower, I wasn’t sure what this plentiful plant was.  I sent a photo to my expert and she instantly answered “Leeks”!   My mom went on to remind me when I was a kid, we had people who would pull off the road near our cabin in Western NY and scramble around in the woods harvesting them.  I knew I had seen them before.

Wild Leeks

I did a little more research and realized I had a little foodie gold mine back there in the woods.  Wild Leeks, or Ramps,  (Allium tricoccum) have a sharp flavor, similar to an onion or garlic and come into season in the early spring.  You can recognize them by their smooth green leaves that emerge from the ground, with a hint of purple on the lower stem.

Wild Leeks

You know for sure you have ramps, when you break a leaf and you can distinctively smell onion/garlic.  No smell, no eating!!

I had never used them before, so I harvested just a little to try out in a couple of recipes.  Wild leeks are actually endangered or rare in many areas because of over-harvesting and they are hard to cultivate.  Rule of thumb to maintain a healthy patch is to only pick 5-10% of a patch, or harvest only the leaves.  To harvest, it’s easiest to use a trowel and loosen the dirt to make it easier to pop out the bulb and greens as a one.  Or, just have a clean shears to trim off the leaves and leave the bulbs behind.

Wild Leeks

Once I picked what I thought was enough to try in a couple of recipes, I left the rest alone to grow and be healthy for many years to come.  I also knew I wasn’t going to be able to eat them right away so I chose to freeze them for later use.

To freeze, first clean off the dirt, peel off any slimy outer skins and cut off the root end.

Wild Leeks

Oh, they look so delicious and the house smells so tasty. I then cut off the white bulbs and and put them directly into a freezer bag.  The greens I blanched for 1 minute in boiling water, plunged into ice water and then placed in a separate freezer bag.

blanching wild leeks

Wild Leeks

Once things had settled down a bit, I finally was able to get them out of the freezer to try.  I decided a Wild Leek Risotto was a good place to start.

Wild Leek Risotto

Using a tasty recipe for Wild Ramp Lemon Risotto from DOC  from The Kitchn, I made my first recipe.  Yum, is all I can say.  What a perfect low sodium side dish for some grilled Copper River Salmon.

Wild Leek Risotto

I still have enough for another meal and I have a bunch more risotto options to try. Check out my Pinterest site for some wild leek/ramp ideas.

Have you tried any foraging foods this spring?

BTW, the two things that are easily confused wild leeks are Trout Lily and Lily of the Valley.  Trout Lily have mottled leaves and white or yellow flowers that will appear at the same time and do not smell like onions.  Lily of the Valley are toxic and have two or three leaves on one stem, come up later in the season, and DO NOT SMELL LIKE ONION. As one who is not keen on foraging, I can attest to the fact that wild leeks smell like onions/garlic and lily of the valley do not.  Use that as your guide and all with be fine and delicious.

Now I’m ready to try out my garlic scapes.