Nov 052013

Many people are unfamiliar with leeks, their nutrition value, or how to include them in a healthy diet.  I’ve always thought they look like scallions on steroids!   Leeks have a mild onion taste, and are part of the allium family, along with garlic, onions, shallots and scallions, so they have many of the same nutritional benefits. 

Research indicates that we should include at least one serving of an allium vegetable in our meals every day.  One of the most popular uses of leeks is to add flavor to stocks.

What are the Health Benefits of Leeks?

Leeks, like all allium vegetables, are believed to aid in lowering bad LDL cholesterol levels while rising good HDL levels and stabilizing blood sugar levels.

Leeks are believed to fight cancer, especially colon and prostate cancer. They contain quercetin and other compounds which inhibit carcinogenic development and also restrict the spread of cancer. Leeks also contain kaempferol, a substance which has been shown to reduce ovarian cancer in women.

The green parts of leeks are very nutritious, containing B vitamins and loaded with protective antioxidants such as the carotenoids, lutein, and zeaxanthin, which are important for eye health.

How to Select and Store Leeks

Select leeks with a clean white slender bulb, at least two to three inches of white, and firm, tightly-rolled dark green tops. The base should be at least 1-2 inch inches in diameter, although many are much larger.  The younger the leek the more delicate the flavor and texture will be. Look for the slim, cylindrical ones rather than those that are large and bulbous which tend to be a bit too mature.

Leeks should be lightly wrapped in plastic for storage. They will rot easily in a standard produce bag.  Do not trim or wash before storing. Store leeks in the vegetable drawer as the odor can easily be absorbed by other items in your refrigerator.

Depending on the freshness factor when you buy them, leeks can be stored anywhere from five days up to two weeks. Cooked leeks should be covered, refrigerated, and used within one to two days.

Cooking with Leeks

In its raw state, the vegetable is crunchy and firm. The edible portions of the leek are the white base of the leaves (above the roots and stem base), the light green parts, and to a lesser extent the dark green parts of the leaves.

Cooking with leeks starts out as a pretty dirty affair.  To prepare leeks for cooking, cut off the tough roots at the base. Wash the leek thoroughly with cold running water (through blanching and other growing processes dirt can lodge within the leaves and on the stem).  Many people prefer soaking them in the sink. Then slice leeks to desired thickness. Generally they are sliced across the grain for use in recipes. Push the rings apart and rinse them in a strainer submerged in a bowl of water, as dirt will frequently be found between the rings. The rings will float and, after stirring the rings about with a hand, the dirt will fall into the bottom of the bowl.

How to use Leeks

  • Healthy sauté leeks and fennel*. Garnish with fresh lemon juice and thyme;
  • Add finely chopped leeks to salads.
  • Make vichyssoise, a cold soup made from puréed cooked leeks and potatoes.
  • Add leeks to broth and stews for extra flavoring.
  • Braised leeks sprinkled with fennel or mustard seeds make a wonderful side dish for fish, poultry or steak.
  • Add sliced leeks to your favorite omelet or frittata recipe.

* Let leeks sit for at least 5 minutes after cutting and before cooking to enhance their health-promoting qualities.

Check out this weeks recipe for Cock-a-leekie soup — Scotland’s Nationals Soup.  The first recipe was printed in 1598.

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