Leaking the Good News About Leeks

Leeks (Allium porrum) share the Allium genus with chives, scallions, garlic, onions, shallots, and elephant garlic.  All of these species, belong, in turn, to the Amaryllidaceae family, which includes many ornamentals, such as the belladonna lily, tuberose, snowdrop, snowflake, daffodil, Cape tulip, Peruvian lily, and amaryllis. Rather than forming a tight bulb like the onion, the leek produces a long cylinder of bundled leaf sheaths that are generally blanched by pushing soil around them (trenching).

Leeks originated in the Mediterranean region and central Asia. They were a part of the Egyptian diet from around the 2nd millennium B.C., and were grown in Mesopotamia from about the same period. The Book of Numbers (11:15) mentions that after the Israelites left Egypt (around 1446 BC), leeks were one of the foods they greatly missed, along with melons, garliconions, and cucumbers. The Phoenicians may have brought leeks to Wales in 1103 BC, when they arrived seeking tin. The ancient Greeks and Romans prized leeks for their beneficial effect upon the throat. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) credited the clear voice of the partridge to a diet of leeks.

The Romans arrived in Wales in 48 AD, and some sources credit them, not the Phoenicians, with introducing what became a staple of the Welsh diet. Leeks were the favorite vegetable of the Roman Emperor Nero (37-68 AD), who frequently enjoyed them in soup to improve his singing voice. The Roman cookbook Apicius, from the 4th–5th century AD, gives a recipe for “Vegetable Dinner, easily digested: All green vegetables are suited for this purpose very young beets and well matured leeks are parboiled; arrange them in a baking dish, grind pepper and cumin, add broth and condensed must, or anything else to sweeten them a little, heat and finish them on a slow fire, and serve.”

A Welsh monk known as Dewi Sant (c. 500 – c. 589) was bishop of Menevia during the 6th century; he was later canonized as Saint David and is regarded as the patron saint of Wales. The Monastic Rule of David prescribed that monks had to pull the plough themselves without draught animals, must drink only water and eat only bread with salt, herbs (perhaps watercress) and leeks, and spend the evenings in prayer, reading and writing. He lived a simple, vegan life and taught his followers to refrain from eating meat and drinking beer. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, David was a strong, tall man and lived to a ripe old age.

In about 640 AD, when the Saxons were fighting the Welsh, King Cadwallader told his Welsh soldiers to wear leeks to distinguish themselves from their opponents. To this day, the Welsh still wear a leek or a representation of one in their hats. Leeks were first brought to North America and Canada by early settlers.

In France, the leek is known as poireau, which is also a derogatory term meaning “simpleton.” The French regarded leeks as the “Asparagus of the Poor.” They changed their tune in the early 20th century, when a French-born chef used them to create a culinary sensation at a posh New York hotel. French Chef Louis Diat related in the New Yorker in 1950: “In the summer of 1917, when I had been at the Ritz [Carlton New York] seven years, I reflected upon the potato-and-leek soup of my childhood, which my mother and grandmother used to make. I recalled how, during the summer, my older brother and I used to cool it off by pouring in cold milk, and how delicious it was. I resolved to make something of the sort for the patrons of the Ritz.” Diat named it after his home town, Vichy. Vichyssoise, a cold soup made of leeks and potatoes, is now an internationally celebrated classic dish.

Leeks can:

  1. Protect your heart and blood vessels. Leeks are an excellent source of vitamin K, which allows your blood to clot normally, and helps prevent calcification of your arteries. Leeks contain significant amounts of a flavonoid phytochemical called kaempferol. Kaempferol protects the linings of your blood vessels, particularly against free radicals. It seems to prevent arteriosclerosis by inhibiting the oxidation of low density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad” cholesterol) and the formation of platelets in your blood. Saponins in leeks lower blood cholesterol and decrease risk of cardiovascular disease. Allicin is a sulphur-containing compound that is formed when leeks are crushed, chopped, or chewed. It can reduce cholesterol production in your liver, block platelet clot formation, and remove clots from your blood vessels, which helps decrease your overall risk of coronary artery disease (CAD), peripheral vascular diseases (PVD), and stroke. Kaempferol and allicin may also increase production of nitric oxide, a substance that acts as a natural dilator and relaxant of the blood vessels, which lowers your blood pressure. The folate in leeks reduces the concentration of homocysteine in your blood. Excessive levels of homocysteine promote inflammation and increase your risk of cardiovascular diseases. 
  2. Prevent cancer. The kaempferol in leeks acts as a chemopreventive agent, which means that it inhibits the formation of cancer cells. Allyl sulfides in leeks help reduce your risk of cancer by reducing the production of certain enzymes that convert cancer-causing precursors into their active form. Allicin in leeks can inhibit bacterial, viral, and fungal infections in your digestive tract, including Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria responsible for gastric ulcers that increases your risk for stomach cancer.
  3. Fight free radicals. Leeks contain high levels of vitamin C, polyphenols, saponins, and kaempferol, which are all strong antioxidants that can neutralize free radicals. They prevent oxidative damage of your cells, lipids, and DNA, which protects you from many chronic diseases and premature aging.
  4. Fight chronic inflammation. The polyphenols, kaempferol, and saponins in leeks fight chronic low-level inflammation, decreasing your risk for diabetes, obesity, and rheumatoid arthritis. 
  5. Build strong bones and teethVitamin K helps protect your bones from fracture and helps prevent postmenopausal bone loss. Vitamin A, which your body makes from many carotenoids in leeks, promotes bone and tooth growth. Leeks are also high in  manganese, which facilitates formation of bone. The folate in leeks helps prevent osteoporosis-related bone fractures. Saponins in leeks prevent cavities and protect against bone loss.

Nutrients in 100 Grams Chopped Leeks

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

vitamin K

47 µg

59%

vitamin A

1667 IU

33%

manganese

0.5 mg

24%

vitamin C

12 mg

20%

folate

64 µg

16%

iron

2.1 mg

12%

vitamin B6

0.2 mg

12%

magnesium

28 mg

7%

fiber

1.8 g

7%

calcium

59 mg

6%

copper

0.1 mg

6%

potassium

180 mg

5%

carbohydrates

14.2 g

5%

vitamin E

0.9 mg

5%

phosphorus

35 mg

4%

thiamine

0.1 mg

4%

Calories

61

3%

protein

1.5 g

3%

niacin

0.4 mg

2%

riboflavin

0.03 mg

2%

sodium

20 mg

1%

selenium

1 µg

1%

zinc

0.1 mg

1%

pantothenic acid

0.1 mg

1%

fat

0.3 g

0.23%

cholesterol

0 mg

0%

lutein-zeaxanthin

1900 µg

carotene-ß

1000 µg

Leeks are available all year round and are most abundant from March to October. Look for medium-sized, crisp-looking leeks that have long, white stems and all or some of the roots still attached. The presence of the roots indicates that the leek is still intact; if the base of the leek has been cut, the flesh begins to dry out. Avoid buying leeks that are yellowed, split, or which have crispy or wilted leaves. These leeks are not in their prime. (But you can still use them in soup stock if you find them in your refrigerator.)

To prepare leeks, cut off the roots. If the dark-green outer leaves are tough or spotty, remove them. Trim the ends of the remaining leaves. Cut the leeks in half lengthwise, then slice or chop. Place in a colander, and then place the colander in a bowl of water and swirl around until the dirt falls to the bottom. Take the colander out, and let it drain.

Many recipes call for just the white parts of leeks, but the light green is just as good, and even the dark green is fine, as long as you sautée it for at least 5 minutes or so. I almost always use the entire leek in my recipes. Be careful not to undercook, or they will be tough and stringy. Overcooking will leave leeks with a mushy consistency. If steaming or baking, only cook until tender. And for baking, always add water, vegetable broth, or juice to the dish.

Consider these ideas to try with leeks:

  • Add chopped leeks to risotto, soup, casseroles, pasta sauce, scrambles
  • Grill or broil half lengths of leek brushed with balsamic vinegar and top with No-Harm Parm
  • Bake leeks in water and lemon juice sprinkled with freshly milled black pepper
  • Steam finely chopped or baby leeks and toss in your favorite dressing and fresh herbs as a garnish
  • Chop leeks and mince garlic; let stand for 10 minutes, then sauté for 5 minutes

This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this blog to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.

This blog is not a substitute for the services of a trained health professional. Although we provide nutritional information, the information on this blog is for informational purposes only. No information offered by or through this blog shall be construed as or understood to be medical advice or care. None of the information on this blog should be used to diagnose or treat any health problem or disease. Consult with a health care provider before taking any product or using any information on this blog. Please discuss any concerns with your health care provider.

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