I used to be intimidated by leeks: the unwieldy stalks, their overgrown scallion appearance, the layers that need to be trimmed and peeled off before getting down to what’s there, and once you’ve done that – then what?

I was first introduced to leeks when I was young as a flavoring in vichyssoise (that yummy cold potato and leek soup from France). I loved the taste, but it was still a mystery. Then a few years ago, a Norwegian guy sliced them into circles, sautéed them in butter with fennel as a side dish with some salmon and I thought I’d gone to heaven. But most recently, early this past spring, a Swedish gal braised them and I was hooked. I ended up planting rows and rows of little ones this season and now there have been feasts of them for weeks (and still going strong).

Leeks have a milder and sweeter flavor than onions and a crunchy texture when cooked, making them a delicious side dish or served on their own. Leeks are surprisingly nutritious, supplying more vitamins and minerals (Manganese, Vitamin C, Iron, Folate and Vitamin B6) than an equal-sized serving of onions or scallions. And, like garlic and onions, leeks belong to the Allium family, which means they contain many beneficial things that help lower LDL cholesterol (while raising the good HDL kind) which translates into lower blood pressure and less heart attacks and strokes. More bennies include a reduced risk of prostate and colon cancer and stabilized blood sugar. A caveat though, for those with already existing and untreated kidney or gallbladder problems – you may want to avoid eating leeks because they contain oxalates, naturally-occurring substances found in plants, animals, and human beings, which can crystallize and cause health problems. Oxalates may also interfere with absorption of calcium from the body. For this reason, individuals trying to increase their calcium stores may want to avoid leeks, or if taking calcium supplements, may want to eat leeks 2-3 hours before or after taking their supplements.

Still not a bad combo for something so tasty, right?

The white ends should be relatively straight and not exceed 1 1/2" in diameter--larger leeks are often tough and woody. Check each leek at both ends: The leaf tops should be fresh and green, while the white root end should show a firmly attached fringe of rootlets and several inches of unblemished skin, which will give very slightly to pressure.

Leeks will keep for up to a week or two in the refrigerator if stored loosely wrapped in plastic, unwashed and untrimmed. Leeks may be frozen after being blanched for a couple of minutes, but they will lose some of their taste and texture (like most things in a deep freeze) and will keep in the freezer for about three months.

As I mentioned, the most savory experience I’ve had with leeks has been braised. Before cooking, they need careful cleaning because soil and grit collect between the layers of the leaves. The tough outer leaves should be removed and the darkest portion of the green tops (the whole leek is edible, but the darker greens don’t taste as good) and trim the roots.

You should now have 6-8 inch stalks which should be cut lengthwise and then in half so you have, from each stalk, four 3-4 inch half logs. You can briefly steam them before braising, but I like the slow simmer. Line them up in the bottom of a large skillet after you’ve melted some unsalted butter (it’s fresher than salted butter and you can control your salt intake better if you’re in control of when it is added). As they settle into the heat, turn them over and add some organic vegetable or chicken stock. Keep the low flame going and then flip them back over. Sprinkle with salt as you’re cooking (coarse sea salt is great). You should be able to slightly pierce the base with the point of a sharp knife when done. Cooking times vary, depending upon the size and age of the leeks, so you will need to keep testing for doneness. The flavor is really out of this world.

And, just so you know, leeks have a rich history. Said to be native to Central Asia and cultivated there and in Europe for thousands of years, leeks were prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans for their beneficial effect upon the throat. The Romans are thought to have introduced leeks to the United Kingdom, where they were able to flourish because they could withstand cold weather. So keep the harvest going and speak out into the winter that’s coming fast!