Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Salvaging the Overwintered Leeks

Last year I didn't start my own seeds of my favorite leek, the Bleu de Solaize. It's my favorite because it is incredibly winter hardy. I've left it in the ground over winter in previous years, and harvested it during a January thaw, when the air temperature warms but the ground is still frozen. Sometimes those midwinter harvests involve pitchforking out a frozen block of soil, letting it sit in the sun for several hours, then coming back to extract the leeks. But I couldn't get Bleu de Solaize starts last year, so I went with whatever leek starts were available at my local nursery. I don't even remember the variety.

So when late fall started turning into winter, and many leeks were too small to be worth harvesting, I didn't have a whole lot of hope for them. I harvested up until the ground froze, starting with the biggest ones first.  The rest were left to winter's untender mercies.  But as winter began to loosen its grip on the garden, I cast another evaluating glance over the bedraggled leeks.  Some of them certainly were looking large enough to salvage.  And with volunteer help around, it seemed like a good food preservation chore to tackle.  Besides, that part of the garden is has a date with 25 crowns of purple asparagus in not too many weeks.

My expectations were rather modest.  Our volunteer and I loosened the soil with a pitchfork and set about "field dressing" the leeks.  We shook off as much of the soil as easily came loose, cut off the roots, stripped off the dirty and damaged outermost layers, and trimmed away most of the greens. There were more beautifully preserved leeks, and larger amounts of leek below the soil surface than I had imagined.  There was surprising little damage from frost, even though we found bits of ice held in the layers of the upper green parts of the plants. Leeks are tough plants. I was amazed to find that the harvest just about filled my garden hod.  It seems that Bleu de Solaize isn't the only leek that overwinters for us with zero protection.

The harvest tally came to over five (!) pounds (2.3 kg) of trimmed leeks. Only a small number were too damaged to harvest.  It was very satisfying to remove so much food from the row, and have it all cleaned up well ahead of the asparagus crowns' arrival.  We rinsed the leeks in two changes of water outside, to spare the plumbing in our old farmhouse.  Leeks have many virtues, but their hygiene leaves much to be desired.  Because of the way they grow up through the soil, they catch a prodigious amount of dirt in their layers.  That people are known to put up with the trouble of cleaning such a plant should tell you something about the wonders it can do in the kitchen, though not perhaps the detail that these wonders are particularly on display where soups and potatoes are concerned.

After the outdoor work was done, there was still a good deal of indoor processing left to do.  Trimming, assiduous rinsing, chopping, butter melting, cooking and cooling.  The end result was a dozen discrete piles of sauteed leeks arranged on sheet pans lined with baking parchment.  Once the individual clumps of leeks were frozen solid, I bagged them up.  This way I can grab a usefully sized portion of partially cooked leeks out of the freezer whenever needed, rather than having to thaw a huge block of them all at once.

Preserving this many leeks was another task which would have been tedious in the extreme to do all by myself.  Having volunteer help made the work lighter, and I had the pleasure of teaching someone about a previously unfamiliar vegetable.  Another win with the WWOOF.

I've already got quite a few Bleu de Solaize baby leek sprouts started indoors.  And I can't seem to resist planting more of them.  I'm hoping we'll have enough to harvest starting in late summer, and still leave plenty for harvest well into this time next year.


Anonymous said...

They look great! Leeks are a delight at this time of year, so sweet and tender... Mine are buried under feet of snow still, but I'm hoping that in the next few weeks I'll be able to harvest some.

I am so jealous of your snow-free garden!

Melynda said...

Great preserving process. Leeks are very expensive in the stores, so I do not use them. Maybe I will look for starts and give this a try.

Donna Lynn said...

I love leeks but have never tried growing them. Adding this to my list for fall.

Mitzi G Burger said...

Leek is a favourite veg of mine, and I'm growing some on our little balcony. I hope they read this blog and say "when I grow up I want to look like that".

meemsnyc said...

How wonderful that you were able to overwinter the leeks. Really awesome to get 5 pounds! I thought they would freeze with all the snow we got.

Kate said...

Ali, yes, leeks are a treasure of the lean months of the year. The number of leeks seeds I'm starting is getting a bit out of hand, but I can't help myself. Hold on up there in snowy Maine; your spring will come too.

Melynda, thanks. Leeks are expensive, probably at least in part because they are such long season crops. They hog up real estate that could otherwise be turned over to yield multiple crops. But if you have the space to grow them, they are mostly trouble free, and they can be harvested now, when there's little else available.

Donna, I certainly recommend them. Hope they do well for you.

Mitzi, try to hill them as they grow, if you can. You can force them to grow very tall, which yields more of the tender white parts. I don't always manage it, but it's a joy to harvest a leek with 6" white bits.

meemsnyc, I was pretty impressed myself. They certainly did freeze, but as I said, they're tough plants. The outer layers were damaged, but plenty inside was fine.

karen said...

What a great idea to freeze those small patties to add to recipes. I just chopped up a bunch of leeks to make some colcannon using your recipe. Can't wait to eat it. Thanks Kate! Karen from CT

caroline Cleaver said...

I found your blog through another blog I just love "Homestead Revival". It says you live in South Eastern PA..I do too! We have a house in a suburb, with a little bit of land (1/3 an acre maybe?) and we WANT to turn our yard into as much "working space" as possible. I am so inspired by others who don't have farms, yet turn their yards into homesteads! I am just starting out, and just learning the ropes..but my goal is in 5 years or so to have this thing down pat! Nice to meet you!!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful! Leeks are one of my top favorite veggies. I was/am planning to try to grow leeks for the first time this year, but after getting the seed packet I ordered, I think I might be too late to start them and have to wait until fall. ?? :(
Would LOVE any advice on this. Can I still plant them for spring or do I have to wait?

Kate said...

Karen, thanks. Hope your colcannon was fabu.

Caroline, howdy, and welcome, neighbor. I have about twice as much space as you, but really half our lot is unusable for food production, so maybe about the same situation. It's amazing what can be done in a little space if you make food production your priority. Go for it!

lazyhomesteader, plant them! Plant them! Leeks are long season crops, it's true. But it's only the middle of March. There's plenty of time for them to grow if you plant them now. I start them in milk cartons, and I'll start another bunch tomorrow and another next week too. So get cracking on those seeds!

daisy said...

Wow! Those leeks are gorgeous!

Anonymous said...

Ok - started! Thanks!