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Seasonal Pantry: Tips when shopping for, using leeks

We think of delicately beautiful leeks as harbingers of spring and we want them now, even though their season is winding down, not beginning.

Their flavor, too, evokes the approach of spring, and they are often at their best served with spring foods, like artichokes, asparagus, spring garlic, spring onions and eggs.

Yet leeks are a fall and winter crop and are finishing as spring unfolds. Locally, we do tend to have some leeks nearly year round, as there are enough microclimates to provide what they need, which is sandy soil and not too much heat.

Left in the ground in hot weather, leeks produce a gorgeous flower, a large spiky puffball of sorts with tiny purple flowers at the end of each spike. One year when I had a lot of leeks in my garden, I let some bloom and then gathered them into a huge bouquet that I put in a large urn at the head of my bed.

It was a big mistake. Although leeks don't typically evoke the same amount of tears as onions and shallots do, their flowers are strongly scented and will make you cry, especially in an enclosed space.

When shopping for leeks, you'll find the best at farmers markets, of course. To enjoy them whole, look for leeks that are about as big around as your thumb. If you'll be slicing them for soup, quiche, strudel, risotto and such, larger leeks are fine.

Once you have leeks, it is important to clean them well, as dirt and sand often hide between the layers of leaves. I think it is best to rinse them in warm water and, if the leek is particularly large, cut it in half lengthwise before doing so.

For leek recipes from the Seasonal Pantry archives, visit “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

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If you think of risotto as a special-occasion dish, I encourage you to rethink. When there's stock in your pantry or freezer and good Italian rice on the shelf, it makes a great week-night meal when not much else is at hand and you really don't want to go to the market. In this recipe, you can omit the asparagus and egg if you like and serve the risotto solo, with a little salad alongside. I recommend Earthworker Farm's salad mix with onion grass, as the flavor resonates beautifully with the flavor of the leeks.

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