Appropriately prized in Europe as a versatile, subtle workhorse, leeks are gaining ground stateside. Our sales increase annually, and when possible we “alpha” them. This means when a local grower of organic leeks can offer a price close to conventional, then we sell only their leeks. Their sales go up, and you get to use really pristine produce!
Known in Wales as “poor man’s asparagus”, leeks are one of the most easily digested allium family members. Their mild, refined flavor enhances and melds other ingredients together in a subtly beautiful way. They do take a long time to grow, and must require mounding of soil as they grow to produce optimum white blanched shanks. The two major leek challenges are in dead of winter, when slower growing means harvest may be pushed to meet demand, resulting in shorter, less blanched, lower yielding leeks, and in spring, when their DNA pushes them to bolt in an effort to flower and produce seed, during which time texture is challenged and we may have to deal with a wood “stick” in the center. As with all things produce, timing is everything and Mother Nature has the final word. Every season is different but in a perfect world there are enough leeks planted at the right time to endure a steady supply of perfectly sized, non-bolting, high yielding leeks. That’s what farmers aim for, and what our buyers strive to supply you with. Because leeks are a biennial (setting seed in their second year), they can be particularly tricky.
Whole or halved and braised leeks make an elegant and tasty statement as a simple plate veg. As days warm (they will), leeks vinaigrette makes one tasty appetizer, and Vichyssoise can hit the spot. For cooler days, a creamy leek tart or warm soup is welcoming. Try a leek and pork pie, or the Scottish Cockaleekie, a casserole combining chicken, leeks, herbs, stock and prunes.
Mary Risley has a knock-your-socks-off recipe for Cream of Leek Soup with Stilton in the San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook, Volume 2. Gerald Hirigoyen, in his cookbook The Basque Kitchen, has a mouth- watering recipe for Monkfish or Salmon in Red Wine with Leeks and Pancetta. Or whip up a hearty creamy pasta gratin with sausage, leeks and dried porcini. Last, with spring onions, ramps and green garlic abounding, a multiple onion soup would not be out of order.
Cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, leeks were thought by Emperor Nero to improve his singing voice. Leeks somehow made it to Britan, and in Saxon times the word leac was the generic term for any type of garlic or onion. Also grown for centuries in cooler Northern China, where the tender blanched julienned heart is a classically rolled into Peking pancakes.
Q&A with local chefs, cheese mongers and farmers
Capay Valley, Yolo County
Working with GreenLeaf since: 1997
Specialties: Root crops, asparagus, spring onions, favas, tomatoes, peppers, leeks
Earliest Food Memory?
Tomatoes! Being in my maternal grandfather’s garden. Eating blueberries and blackberries at the peak of their season. It was phenomenal. From 0 to 15 I would spend every August with my grandparents in Cape Cod or Old Greenwich. We would go crabbing and fishing in Long Island Sound. Fond memories. That’s where it all started. Happy times and good food.
Why not farming? I grew up in Cleveland, and decided I never wanted to live in a city again. I saw farming as a way out, and to bring my grandfather’s farming influence into my life, make it a focus of life. I saw it as an idyllic lifestyle, and while “reality hit”, I consider myself lucky to be a farmer, especially with no “legacy” of family farming to draw from. To have pulled it together and be reasonably successful, 27 years later, I feel like it’s an honor. I see no compelling alternates.
Farming is truly an honor. We grow delicious foods and bring them to people. There is immense pleasure selling at Farmers Markets, developing relationships with our customers, watching their kids grow up, and for them to bring their kids. The continuity and knowing that people love and appreciate what you do is gratifying. The connection to the restaurant world is a bit less direct, but it’s still there, and we appreciate the deep relationships with GreenLeaf buyers we’ve developed over the years.
Favorite leek recipe?
I love a plateful of leeks, maybe piled on crostini. Just simply sautéed in olive oil. Straight up, sometimes finished with some kale or chard. I consider them a vegetable unto themselves; nothing like a big pile of steaming, slippery leeks.
So many! I would say providing a stable workplace for our crew, managing crops to that end so we can be great employers. We base our agricultural model in large part on how to employ our crew year round, and to provide them and their families with health insurance. Also, managing crops w/in the parameters of the weather.
It is a challenge to communicate this to our customers, that it’s not just great produce we’re providing, but that it shows the commitment that Riverdog makes to be a great place to work, where people are respected. We’ve created a stability that is rare in our world. Hopefully respect of workers is reflected in our produce. It’s not just about the bottom line when dealing with fresh produce and people working hard.
Riverdog Farm Snapshot: Tim Mueller and Trina Campbell started farming in the Napa Valley in 1990. Their successful two acre organic garden was inhabited by the family dog, Shadow. A water lover, Shadow gave the farm its name— Riverdog—and it is Shadow’s portrait that graces the Riverdog label. The farm eased out of the Napa Valley during the mid 1990s due to the rising price of grapes and the concomitant pressure on land prices. Tim and Trina knew other growers in the Capay Valley and moved to their current farm in Guinda in 1995. Riverdog is located on a creek bed where rich creek-bottom soil, intense summer heat and winter frost make exceptionally tasty fruits and vegetables. GreenLeaf has partnered with the folks at Riverdog for more than a decade.
Farm to Table
Featured Chef: Jesse Ziff Cool
Featured Restaurant: Flea Street Cafe
Working with GreenLeaf since: 1979
Earliest food memories?
Being in my Dad’s back yard in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where he had cucumbers and tomatoes growing between bushes. Also, because my uncle had a slaughterhouse we regularly had tongue and sweetbreads on the table. They were delicious and I thought everyone ate that way. As a kid eating such food and secretly loving it was an embarrassment.
How are you currently using Riverdog’s organic leeks?
They’re the backbone of everything we cook. From stocks, to being in our ever-changing nightly veggie plate where we’ll sweat them in olive oil, toss with carrots, and whatever else is fresh and in season. They go in to our wonderful croquettes which were recently featured on KQED’s program, Check Please!
Favorite spring vegetables?
Artichokes, unquestionably. Asparagus. I can’t eat enough of it, regardless of any side effects. Fava leaves and fava blossoms. Oh, and we love your local cheese program!
Blending, balancing my passion and respect for well raised/grown/crafted ingredients and the farmers/artisans behind them with a conscience for social justice, community, and making it all work to run a sustainable, ingredient driven business.
My Dad had a neighborhood grocery where he baked everything from scratch and used lots of home grown produce. He taught me early on how much work goes in to making real, good food. My respect for that runs deep, and it’s gratifying to see food consciousness and systems supportive of this are on the rise.
Looking into the future?
Passing my experience and passion on to my amazing staff. They are really fantastic.