The leek, more delicate than the onion, is easy to grow from seed

A savory vegetable, unknown to my mother and most of her contemporary gardening friends -- and that is still absent from most American gardens -- is the leek.

Although an old, valuable, and all but indispensable root to the European countryman (and cook), it seems not to have crossed the ocean with the pioneers -- or if it did, it never advanced with any enthusiasm into the land beyond the Mississippi River.

Nonetheless, I now grow leeks as easily as I do their earthy cousin, the onion.

Actually, it's easy to get a crop of leeks from seeds, whereas onions are sometimes difficult to start. Also, since leeks do great the way they have always been, the hybridizers haven't tried to "improve" them, so far as I know. Thus, we can permit a few plants to grow into their second year to make flower stalks, with their great round purple heads, made up of many small florets, and, when they've made seeds, save enough to plant all that anyone could possibly want.

Besides, we often can supply the entire neighborhood, if we wish.

Leeks should be sown thickly very early in the spring (or late in the fall in mild climates). When the plants are 6 or so inches tall (or after they've grown all winter), prepare a trench for them which is 10 to 12 inches deep and where they can grow undisturbed until large enough to use.

Place several inches of sifted compost in the bottom of the trench. Lift the plants out of their original bed, cut off the tops to leave 3 or 4 inches of spear, and set into the trench.

Keep moist and, as they grow, pull the sides of the trench down around them. Keep adding mulch and compost to the whole bed. This deep planting and continuous mulching not only blanch the stalks but ensure a sweet-flavored, long tender root that can be 5 or 6 inches around when harvested.

Of course, if you never get around to digging the trench (as sometimes will happen), simply thin leeks to about 6 inches apart (you can use the pencil-thin seedlings as scallions), draw up the soil, and keep adding mulch and compost to the row to achieve the blanching and tenderizing operation.

Leeks never hurry the gardener. In mild climates they can be left in the ground all winter. Dig them out as needed, but be sure to use a spading fork so as not to break the long tender stalks by pulling.

Where the ground freezes for long periods of time, dig before a hard frost, stand upright in a box as you would carrots or celery, and pack soil around the roots up past the white portion. Store in a root cellar at 40 degrees F. or below.

Even better, skip all this and freeze the leeks in small packages after a 3 -minute blanching bath.

This large, snow-white root tastes something like its relative the onion, except that its flavor is sweeter and more delicate. It grows, also like the onion, in parchmentlike layers wrapped around one another, but unlike the onion, it does not form into a globular shape, but remains a succulent straight stalk.

If you've left the leeks in the garden all winter, and arrive at March (or at the latest, April) with some plants still in the ground, it's time to get every one of them out except any that you may wish to leave for seed.

At about the same time that they begin forming the hard stalk up the center which will hold the blossom, and later the seed pods, they also begin forming sprouts around the roots. (You can separate the sprouts and plant them.) All this growth, of course, makes the stalks less useful for food.

About this time I take a day out for "leek processing" -- digging, washing, cutting up, blanching, and freezing.

In England, Scotland, Wales, and France, leeks were from earliest times considered common pot herbs. In Britain, for instance, the soup was called by the affectionate name of "cock-a-leekie," while in France it was given the name of "gauloise." In London the plant was called the "London flag."

"Leek and potato soup smells good, tastes good, and is simplicity itself to make," says Julia Child in her book "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

To make it, choose a good potato-soup recipe and add leeks that have been split and cut into 1 or 2 pieces, including some of the green part. Cook only until tender. If you add cream and chill, it becomes vichyssoise, the American invention that started with the Old Country potato-soup recipe -- the one we generally associate with leeks in the United States.

Leek soup is versatile. It seems to be compatible with any vegetable you may have on hand.

Used as a vegetable, it is often served with a cheese sauce to which tarragon is added, with discretion. Following the imagination and ingenuity of the Old World cooks, if you have your trusty row of leeks in the kitchen garden you can count on always being able to pro duce a warm and filling meal.

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