As we come to the end of the winter growing season, it is important to make the most of the seasonal produce that will soon shoot up in price and dwindle in availability. One of my favourite, and often overlooked winter vegetables is the humble leek (Allium porrum. Alliaceae).
Leeks stand out in the market garden with their imposing presence – long and thick white (blanched) leaf sheaths extending upwards to green leafy crowns. Their impressive structure makes them an excellent base for many dishes, but leeks shine brightest when paired with simple ingredients that complement their subtle, sweet, and savoury flavour.
In Egyptian history, leeks were regarded as a sacred plant. There are wall carvings that suggest leeks date back as far as the second millennium BC. Fast forward to the 21st century, and while you will not see too many folks bowing to their patch of leeks as the Egyptians once did, they are certainly still worthy of inclusion in your vege garden.
And shoutout to the creators of Pokémon who were such fans of the leek that one of their creations (Farfetch’d) brandishes a leek as a weapon in battle.
The most common types of leeks in New Zealand are the Musselburgh and Cardiff/Welsh Wonder. These varieties grow well in all New Zealand climates, including subtropical, cold, and temperate. Leeks are best planted in late summer/early autumn. Seeds need soil temperatures of at least 7°C to germinate so it is better to grow leek seedlings under cover or indoors. Follow these steps for successful leaf growth and harvesting:
- Plant the seeds in punnets and allow them to grow into 20cm tall seedlings before transplanting into the main garden bed. It may take 3-4 weeks for leeks to reach this stage.
- To prepare the main garden bed for leeks, ensure you have moisture-retentive soil, rich in organic matter/compost, in full sun. Dig some fertiliser into the soil before planting.
- Dig holes in the soil 15cm deep, 3cm wide, and 15cm apart. Drop the root seedlings into each hole so that the roots are resting at the bottom. Fill each hole with water, so that only some leaves are left sticking out the top. This will allow some soil to wash to the bottom of the hole and cover the roots.
- After planting the seedlings, water gently with some seaweed-based fertiliser and then water regularly – daily if there is a dry period, spacing out the watering if there is rainfall. Leeks like moist soil but you do not want it to be too wet.
- Additional liquid seaweed fertiliser feeding adjacent to the leek plants every couple of weeks will encourage growth.
- As the leeks grow, cover up any white stem sections with soil as this will help to achieve chunky white leeks. Hoe the soil around the leeks to keep it loose and free-draining.
- Because leeks are very hardy winter plants, they do not require any protection once seedlings are transplanted.
- Leeks take approx. 16-20 weeks to fully mature from initial seed planting. To harvest, using a garden fork or trough, carefully uplift the leeks so that leaf sheaths are not damaged.
- Pest control is often unnecessary for leeks – slugs tend to be the primary pest.
- If companion planting (highly recommended), grow alongside onions, lettuces, and garlic.
If planting leeks is not viable on your property, make sure you purchase them seasonally from your local market garden, as seasonal leeks are often only $1-2. If wanting value for money, go for the leeks with the thickest, longest white leaf sheath, as it is the white and light green parts that are mostly used in cooking (the dark green tops tend to be very tough, so need to be cooked long and slow to be palatable). Leeks are relatively high in iron and manganese, important for bone formation, free radical defence, and nitrogen metabolism.
Below I share a recipe that showcases the mighty leek in its all glory. Caramelising the leeks adds depth and subtle sweetness to this simple spaghetti dish, perfect for a long lunch with friends or a speedy weeknight meal.
Caramelised Leek & Mushroom Spaghetti with pecan pangrattato
Ingredients (serves 4)
- 2 large leeks (white/pale green parts only), leaves/ends trimmed
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- ½ tsp sea salt
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- 250g brown or white mushrooms, sliced
- ½ cup (125ml) white wine
- ½ cup (125ml) vegetable stock
- 1 Tbsp fresh thyme (or 1 tsp dried)
- 400g dried spaghetti
- boiling water
- juice of 1 lemon
- ½ tsp cracked black pepper
- sea salt (to taste)
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- ½ cup (50g) breadcrumbs
- ⅓ cup (50g) pecans, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- 2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
- large pinch of nutmeg
- ¼ tsp cracked black pepper
- ¼ tsp sea salt
- To make your spaghetti, slice the leeks in half lengthways then place the halves flat side-down and slice horizontally into 1cm thick halfmoons.
- Place the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Once hot, add the sliced leeks and sea salt, and sauté for 15 minutes until the leeks are softened and starting to caramelise. Add the chopped garlic and mushrooms, sauté for a further three minutes, then pour in the white wine and stock. Increase the heat to high, bring to the boil, add the thyme and simmer over medium heat for 10-15 minutes until the alcohol smell disappears and most of the liquid has evaporated.
- Meanwhile, pour the boiling water into a large pot (big enough to hold the spaghetti) and set over medium-high heat. Once at a rolling boil, add the spaghetti and a teaspoon of sea salt and cook the spaghetti until al dente (approx. 8-10 minutes or as per packet instructions).
- Once al dente, drain the spaghetti water, and add the spaghetti plus ¼ cup of cooking water to the frying pan with the leeks/mushrooms. Remove the pan from the heat, add the lemon juice and black pepper, toss through the spaghetti and season with a little extra sea salt to desired taste.
- For the pecan pangrattato, place the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Once hot, add the breadcrumbs, chopped pecans and garlic and fry for 3-4 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the heat and stir through the nutmeg, lemon zest, chopped parsley, nutmeg, black pepper, and sea salt.
Serve your spaghetti warm, topped with a generous sprinkling of pangrattato.
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