Sally and I were at the Orleans farmers' market the other day shopping for a leek. We needed one perfect leek for our butternut/shrimp bisque, and we noticed that every vendor had leeks with different amounts of white stem. Peter Fossel had a particularly nice-looking basket of leeks with long, white stems, so we decided to ask him: Peter, how do you get them?
It turns out we asked the right guy. Peter is something of an organic gardening guru: he's the author of Organic Farming: Everything You Need to Know and the former editor of Country Journal. Right now he's farming in Dennisport.
He says the secret to nice white leeks is a practice called hilling. Basically you plant seedlings indoors in the spring—Peter likes the King Richard variety—and when they're about 6 inches tall, good and sturdy, you transplant them out into the garden. You surround each one with a pile of straw and leaves, slowly adding more debris as the season wears on. You want enough mulch to really block the light, because the lack of sunshine is what makes the leek stalks turn white. You have to be careful, though, because too heavy or wet of a mulch will make the leeks rot to mush. This is why Peter uses straw or leaves instead of dirt.
Then you have to be patient. Leeks are long season plants—they take at least 75 days—and they can even over-winter if you mulch them generously. This winter, The Winter That Was Not, Peter let his leeks go til spring, and they did beautifully. That's them up there, the ones he was selling in Orleans the other day.
The green part is edible, but the white part is the sweetest. I used all of the white and a fair amount of the green for our soup, then threw the coarsest bits in the compost. Next week, I think I'll get enough for a pan of braised leeks. How do you eat yours? What variety are you growing?