Leeks are related to garlic and onions but have a much subtler, sweeter and more sophisticated flavour. They can be used to enrich soups or stews and they partner brilliantly with potato and with cheese to form tasty side-dishes and suppers that comfort and satisfy throughout the autumn and winter.
Leeks have been cultivated at least since the time of the Ancient Egyptians and are depicted in surviving tomb paintings from that period. The Romans considered the leek a superior vegetable and Emperor Nero got through so many he gained the nickname Porrophagus (leek eater); he is reported to have thought that eating leeks would improve his singing voice.
Today the leek is grown widely across northern Europe and Asia - from Ireland to northern China - and delicious regional dishes such as cock-a-leekie and vichyssoise have spread across the globe.
Allium porrum - the version of the leek cultivated in Europe - is a member of the onion family. It thrives in cooler climes and is tolerant of frost, hence its great popularity as a winter vegetable.
Go for small or medium size leeks; large leeks (more than about an inch in diameter) are likely to be tough and woody. Leaf tops should be fresh and green, the root end should be unblemished and yield very slightly to pressure. Buy more than needed (around double by weight) to allow for losses due to trimming.
Stored loosely wrapped in plastic (to keep them from drying out and to contain their smell) they will keep in the fridge for a week.
Remove any tired or damaged outer leaves. Trim the rootlets at the base and cut off around a half to two thirds of the dark green tops. Partially cut the leeks in half lengthwise, starting at the middle and running the knife up to the green tops. Make a second lengthwise cut perpendicular to the first, allowing you to fan out the leaves. Give them a good rinse to remove the dirt that can get trapped inside as the leek grows. If you’re not cooking the leeks whole then give them another wash after chopping them.
Undercooked leeks are tough and chewy and overcooked leeks can take on an undesirable squidgy texture. Cook until just tender, testing by piercing the base with a knife. Braising in a moderate oven will take anything from 10 to 30 minutes depending on size. They can also be boiled or steamed.
Legend has it that the Welsh adopted the vegetable as a national emblem in the seventh century when a Welsh army triumphed against the Saxons after wearing leeks in their hats to distinguish them from their enemy.