All Ray de Vries asks is that we enjoy leeks three times a day. The Skagit Valley farmer known as the Leek King is not being selfish, though. He’ll also tell you how to grow leeks so you can eat them all year round—and that everyone in the Pacific Northwest should grow them. “We’ve got the perfect climate,” he says.
The de Vries family got into leeks after Ray’s dad, Ralph, retired from dairy farming and planted a large produce garden. Ralph went to Seattle’s Produce Row and asked sellers what they needed. “We need leeks! As big as you can grow ’em!”
So that’s what the de Vries family started growing. The next spring, young Ray packed up ten-pound boxes of leeks and carted them down to the city. When the seller flipped open a box, he said, “There’s only four leeks in here!” “You said, grow ’em as big as we could!”
“OK, but one-and-a-half inch stalks will be adequate for next time.”
That was the start of Ralph’s Greenhouse. “When we started in the mid-’80s,” Ray says, “we could grow an acre of leeks and that’d be more than Seattle could eat in a year.” Back then, de Vries would do a leek demonstration in a grocery store produce section, and nine out of ten people would say, “What’s a leek?”
Leeks, an allium relative of onions and garlic, certainly weren’t unknown through history. Along with the daffodil, the leek is a national symbol of Wales, worn on March 1, St. David’s Day. Saint David was a fifth century monastic who became a patron saint of oppressed Celts resisting the occupation of invading Normans. Like the apocryphal Revolutionary War command “don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes,” a Welsh army once won out against a superior British force by distinguishing themselves with leeks on their lapels.
Leeks probably originated in Central Asia north of Afghanistan along with the other alliums, garlic, onions, shallots, and scallions. Chemist Eric Block, author of Garlic and Other Alliums: The Lore and the Science, calls this region “a tough neighborhood” where plants must fend off insects and other herbivores by defending themselves with “some serious chemical weapons,” including the sulfury lachrymatory factor that makes you tear up when you slice into an onion.
De Vries says he starts harvesting leeks in the much friendlier Northwest climate in July and that harvest continues until the following May. The Leek King wants you to know that you, too, can have leeks from your own garden all year round. The following advice is from WSU Master Gardeners, but concords exactly with what de Vries recommends.
Start leek seeds at least 6–8 weeks before last frost. Thin to 1” apart when the seedlings are about 3” tall. It’s best to sprout leeks in cool conditions, about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Harden off the seedlings a couple weeks before planting by placing the pots outdoors. Once the soil can be worked, plant 6–8” apart at a depth of about 6” in rows 18–24” apart.
As the leeks grow, mound soil around the base of the plant. This will blanch the edible pseudostems, making them larger and tenderer.
De Vries points out that you can start with a winter variety and stagger that with a later planting of a summer variety in order to keep the harvest coming.
Long prized for their mellow, buttery, onion-like flavor, leeks have curried favor from celebrity chefs and are featured in upscale dishes like a shiitake mushroom and green bean side dish and a fried scallops and leeks main course.
De Vries says he enjoys leeks in omelets, on pizza and, of course, in soups. One of his favorites is “roadkill leek.”
“When the wagon is going from the field to the packing shed, some times there’s a leek that just doesn’t want to go, and it jumps off the truck. I drive by and pick it up and that’ll be my lunch. I chop it up into discs, cover it with olive oil, then microwave the whole mess for a few minutes. Top that with butter and parmesan cheese and serve.”
When he was a boy milking cows at four in the morning, de Vries says he remembers there was nothing on the radio. But then he picked up on “The Crimson and Gray Radio Hour” from Washington State University Extension, and life at O’dark-thirty was no longer so grim.
“When I started farming with my dad, we were always turning to WSU Extension when we had a dilemma.” That’s still true, de Vries says. “The Mount Vernon research station is incredibly useful to us.”
Like garlic and onions, the flavor compounds in leeks change rapidly when sliced, diced, or chopped. So if you want raw leeks in a salad, slice them just before serving. Cooking also changes the flavor, mellowing the sulfury taste and enhancing the buttery nuttiness of leeks as well as bringing out their creamy texture.
Be sure to use only the white (and a little light green) portion of the leek. Leeks trap a lot of sand and dirt in their leaf-like sheaths, so cut the white portion in half lengthwise, pull the layers apart and wash thoroughly.
Buttered leeks are delicious, and a favorite in the British Isles. The basic recipe is to add leeks and seasonings to melted butter, turn the heat down to low, cover, and simmer for about 15 minutes until tender. Garnish with thyme or parsley and serve warm. It can be modified to include peas or other vegetables, as well as meats, such as sausage. Alternatively, this dish could be draped over hashbrowns for delicious effect.
Grow leeks and other alliums the WSU Master Gardeners way.
All about the leeks — A collection of facts about leeks, and a medieval recipe