Known as â€˜The poor manâ€™s asparagusâ€™, leeks have been a British culinary staple for generations. They might have taken a backseat in recent years, but theyâ€™re now back, undergoing a welcome revival in popularity and oozing with real British flavour. Celebrity chefs, foodies and consumers alike are all rushing to get cooking with leeks, so thereâ€™s no better time to give this traditional British veg a taste.The great news for leek lovers is that home-grown British leeks are available nearly all year round. The British leek season launches in September, peaking again in the spring â€“ to coincide with St Davidâ€™s Day, where of course the leek is feted as the national symbol of Wales.
Forget thinking about leeks as a boring side dish or staple ingredient for stocks and stews, leeks are a fantastically versatile veg that add flavour and bite (theyâ€™re part of the onion family) to all sorts of dishes. Roasted, baked or braised, their sweet taste and smooth texture make for a â€˜bursting with flavourâ€™ side dish. Equally, leeks add oodles of taste and character to a whole host of recipes including omelettes, risottos, quiches, pasta sauces and, not forgetting everyoneâ€™s favourite, cock a leekie soup.
As well as tasting great, leeks are amazingly good for you too. They have many of the same health benefits as their onion relatives, such as helping to maintain a healthy heart and circulation, protecting against cancer and generally boosting the immune system.
Leeks â€“ The Healthy Choice!
Leeks are packed full of heath benefits. When eaten regularly, they can help maintain a healthy heart and circulation, protect against cancer, keep blood pressure low and boost the immune system
Eating lots of leeks has been shown to reduce â€˜badâ€™ cholesterol â€“ and at the same time increase levels of â€˜goodâ€™ cholesterol. This is important for preventing the build up of blood vessel plaques that are found in some types of heart disease. If the plaques grow too large or rupture, they can cause a heart attack or stroke. Allium vegetables including leeks can also help to lower high blood pressure â€“ another factor that can contribute to heart attacks and strokes.
Leeks for combating cancer
Research has shown that eating leeks regularly can help protect against cancer, particularly, prostate, colon and stomach cancer. Quercetin, an antioxidant present in the Allium family, is recognised as a cancer-blocking compound.
Leeks for stabilising blood sugar
Leeks are a very good source of manganese and vitamin B6, vitamin C, folate and iron. These nutrients all work together in the body to stabilise blood sugar by slowing down the absorption of sugars from the intestinal tract.
Leeks for expectant mothers
Leeks are a good source of the B vitamin folate, containing between 15% and 49% of the RNI for an adult. Folate is important for pregnant women as it can help reduce the risk of neural tube defects like spina bifida.
Leeks for a healthy diet
Leeks are a great choice for those following a healthy diet as they are very low in calories and packed full of vitamins and minerals. An average serving of leeks (80g or 1 leek) contains: 17 calories, 1g protein, 0.6g fat, 2.1g carbohydrate, 1.4g fibre
For the tastiest leeks:
Choose small to medium leeks as these have the most tender texture
Pick firm, straight leeks with dark green leaves and white necks
Watch out for yellow or wilted leeks or those with cracked or bruised bulbs
Steer clear of leeks with the base of the root removed â€“ this causes them to deteriorate more quickly
If youâ€™re planning to cook leeks whole, try to buy them all the same size so the cooking time is the same for all
Always buy a few extra leeks because often you will need to do quite a bit of trimming (see preparing leeks below)
Keep leeks fresh by:
Storing them unwashed and untrimmed in the salad drawer of the fridge â€“ they will stay fresh for between 3-5 days
Wrapping leeks loosely in a plastic bag to keep them moist
Freezing â€“ after blanching for 2-3 minutes. Keep leeks fresh in the freezer for up to three months (although be aware they may lose some of their sweet taste and tender texture if frozen)
Perfectly prepared leeks
Cut off the roots, remove any tough outer leaves and trim off some of the very green tops. Using a sharp knife, split the stalk lengthwise to cut the leek in half. Fan out the layers of leek, and rinse thoroughly under the cold tap to get rid of any hidden dirt â€“ the layers between leeks can trap grit, dust and soil.
The juice of the plant is used as a moth repellent. The whole plant is said to repel insects and moles!
Leeks can be cooked in all sorts of different and delicious ways including:
Pan fried – heat a small amount of olive oil and butter in a frying pan, add some sliced leeks and gently cook for about 5-10 minutes until tender
SautÃ©ed – for super healthy leeks, sautÃ© with fennel and garnish with fresh lemon juice and thyme
Stir fried – heat a little oil over a high heat in a frying pan or wok, add some prepared leeks and stir fry for a few minutes
Baked – place some sliced leeks in an oven-proof dish, sprinkle with cheese or cover with white sauce and bake for 30-40 minutes at 190 degrees centigrade
Roasted – pour some olive oil into a roasting tray and add leeks, making sure they are coated all over. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt and roast in the oven (210 degrees centigrade ) for 30 minutes
Braised – pour a small amount of chicken or vegetable stock into a frying pan, add some prepared, sliced leeks, cover and gently cook for 10-15 minutes. Braised leeks dusted with fennel or mustard seeds are a delicious accompaniment to fish, poultry or steak
Raw – spice up a salad by adding finely chopped leeks and dress generously with vinaigrette
Hereâ€™s what some of the UKâ€™s top chefs say about British leeks
â€œLeeks are a very fine vegetable indeed. Though they are related to onions, they have a far more subtle and somehow nobler taste, I think. Leeks lend themselves to other flavours superbly, too; great with potatoes, in a soup or with cheese, in salads with vinaigrette, and they also respond beautifully to quick stir-frying.â€Delia Smith, Deliaâ€™s How To Cook, Book Two
â€œThink of the leek as a sweet, silky, user-friendly onion. Locally grown leeks are available in some form or another all year roundâ€¦The pencil-thin ones are a delicacy. Try them steamed or dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette and snippets of chopped, crispy fried bacon.
â€œLeeks can get you out of loads of trouble: you can cut them thick and fry them as a sweet, buttery accompaniment to grilled meat or fish or you can cook them slowly in butter and oil as the principle filling for a quiche. Leeks really shine in a thin stew with fatty lamb, eaten with bacon or pancetta, or with potatoes in the ultimate cold weather soup.â€ Nigel Slater, Nigel Slater Appetite
â€œRoasting vegetables also seems to make them taste more emphatically of themselves: leeksâ€¦can be cooked with a very little oil in a fiercely hot oven. To look at theyâ€™ll be muted, but the flavours will be kick-started into vibrant lifeâ€¦I love these leeks blistered sweet on the outside, suggestively oniony within their slithery centre.â€
Nigella Lawson, How To Eat
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