Post by William Woys Weaver
If you are a fan of Agatha Christie murder stories, then surely you are familiar with her famed character Hercule Poirot. His last name is a pun, since it rhymes with poireau, French for leek, surely the most unlikely name for anyone aspiring to solve crimes! But a-ha! My little gray cells also tell me something about Christie and perhaps a wink and a brilliant idea that came to her over a warming bowl of leek soup. Who is to say this did not inspire her?
You cannot explore Belgian cookery (the homeland of Poirot) unless you also get to know leeks. I grow many varieties, have them in the ground all year around, and very glad of that fact when I price leeks at any supermarket. But what kind of selection do we find? Normally there is one bin of leeks. Let’s see, Baker Creek offers five distinct varieties and I have nine more than that, and yes, each one has a unique flavor. But you have to sample them side by side in order to detect the subtle nuances.
My great-grandmother, Esther Hannum Hickman, studied at Mrs. Rorer’s cooking school in Philadelphia in 1884-1885, and one of the first things she was taught, was the fine art of cooking leeks in white sauce. Her favorite variety was Musselburgh, a market leek developed in Scotland in the 1700s and still valued as one of the hardiest for overwintering in the ground. Don’t forget that those leaves that you trim off the top of leeks are one of the best things to toss into the stock pot. They will give stock a delightful flavor, so don’t waste them!
The Musselburgh leek has been grown for such a long time that it has produced a number of progeny, new sub-varieties selected out for special traits, like size, hardiness, or ability to stand up under heavy rains. One of the most popular of these is the sub-variety called Giant Musselburgh, which also goes by the names American Flag, Selected Musselburgh, and Scotch Flag. It is generally larger than the original Musselburgh strain, and seems to do better in our American climate. Regardless of which variety of leek you like, you should be starting your seed now (March to mid-April) so that the plants can get themselves well established before the heat of summer. It is important that they develop a good root system to help them overwinter, and if you have seeds left over try adding one or two tablespoonfuls to the next batch of bread you bake. They will give the bread a zippy onion flavor, just like Indian chapattis.
William Woys Weaver is a culinary historian living in Devon, Pennsylvania, were he maintains the Roughwood Seed Collection consisting of some 4000 varieties of food plants. http://www.williamwoysweaver.com/
We are excited to have William Woys Weaver Speaking at Our Spring Planting Festival, May 5th and 6th.