Leeks are a pain in the ass to grow, but grow them we do. The white part of the long slender stalk can be meltingly tender, without the sharp acidic snap of the leek's close relatives, the shallot and the onion. That stalk can grow rather tall — a couple feet in the right conditions — with graceful blue-green (inedible) plumage that fans out over the top. The trick is in the etiolation, or blanching the stalk by mounding the soil high around the base to prevent fiber and chlorophyll formation.
Truth be told, we haven't seen a properly etiolated leek — with at least eight inches of pure white stalk — since a trip to Paris a few years ago. Regularly mounding the soil around the plants is labor-intensive, and it also necessitates thorough washing, since the soil easily slides down into the crown and wedges between the thin layers of stalk. But the result is a more tender and usable vegetable, long and thin and positively creamy. It's a sign of diligence and care beyond the usual.
The sight of the nearly 12 inches of pale leek stem at A Garden of…'s stall at the Hollywood market was the cause of great happiness. They were sold out by 9 a.m. and we regretted that we didn't purchase more.
Shu and Debby Takikawa's farm is a certified organic, 19-acre patch close to Los Olivos. Along with the carefully tended leeks, you can also find immaculate kale and super tender fennel bulbs that throw off a heavy licorice perfume. Right now their crops are mostly the usual winter fare, but come spring and summer they have fat favas, summer squash and small baskets of strawberries.
When selecting for any leeks — Takikawa's or Tutti Frutti's or Given's — choose as long a tender white stem as you can. You want a firm flesh, not spongy, and check the greenery on top. It should be firm and squeaky as you squeeze.
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