You have to wait a bit for that fine leek flavor

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The leek is a versatile vegetable, indeed. In addition to its own unique culinary uses, it can replace both scallions and onions, either partially or entirely, in almost any dish. Leeks complement and enhance potatoes, for example -- scalloped potatoes, vichyssoise, etc. Of all cooking aromas, the leed is the most appetizing.

Farm stands and markets rarely sell leeks, however. So why is the leek (Allium porrum)m never included among the nine or 10 vegetables that are most commonly suggested for a home garden? They take very little space, are easily grown, and have no insects or plant diseases to beset them.

When they are grown in a bed, you can keep them weed free with very little work. However, the leek grows slowly and so the gardener must learn to be patient.

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The biennial leek resembles a big stocky scallion with medium-green flat leaves up to three inches wide, which are folded in half above the cylindrical five-inch-long bulb.

Herfstreuzen Baton, a superb table leek from Holland, has a shaft which is "practically devoid of the usual bulbous base," according to Epicure Seeds -- which also offers Belgian, British, and Danish leek seeds. Baton is called the one variety for late summer and the fall.

Home-grown leeks are not only fresher than those sold in the marketplace, but they are crisper and have a finer flavor. Those huge store leeks are less desirable than the medium-size leeks.

Starting about the first week in February, leeks can be sowed every six weeks or so until the end of July. In cold areas the first sowings can be indoors in clay bulb pots or flats. After the seedlings are up, they need light -- sun, if possible -- and do well in temperatures from 60 to 70 degrees F.On warm days the leeks can be put outdoors in a sunny spot, or out in a warm rain.

When the seedlings are almost six inches high, they can be left outdoors in a sheltered spot for a week, then transplanted in deep-cultivated fertile soil, six inches apart. Many gardeners plant them in six-inch-deep trenches; we plant ours in a rectangular bed where the soil is rather sandy.

If you sow your leeks in a trench, fill the trench with soil when the leek tops are well above ground level and are spreading out.

"I never saw any point in this, or banking; dirt sifts between the leaves, which is why market leeks must be so carefully washed," according to herb grower Pat Kraft who harvests her crop by cutting each leek just above its dense roots. "The roots add humus to the soil," she adds.

Banking to whiten the leeks may have originated in Europe where the leeks is a common vegetable and is left in the ground all winter; in cold countries the practice of banking assures its survival.

Leeks seem to be growing very slowly," said Harold Bixby, a Schenectady, N.Y. , gardener, around the first of July. "We've never had them before so perhaps it's normal." He's right. It takes from 120 to 130 days for a leek to reach full size, but you can start cutting them for salads, stews, and the like, after three months.

"As far as taste goes, I can't tell the difference between leek varieties," reports Ernest Ellicot, a Lynn, Mass., grower. "There is a difference between the looks of some leeks, however," he adds. "Giant Musselburghs are tall and thick; Broad Londons are thick and shorter." Mr. Ellicot has also grown Unique and Elephant. "The Lyon," a prize taker, is said to be the finest variety, but grow it in the same bed as Malabare and the two appear virtually identical.

A description of Malabare, the very early Belgian leek, includes: "Soups and stews have long appreciated the leek's presence. But leek tart with cheese? Braised, Scot style? Casserole with rice and onions and lemon wedges? Don't say this is not the most versatile member of the onion family."

The leek originated either in Switzerland or along the Mediterranean.

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