Yesterday we pulled the winter vegetables out of the hoophouse and, in a fit of starry-eyed optimism, planted melons.
Yes, my friends, Kevin and I are going to try to grow cantaloupes and watermelons right here on Cape Cod. In our sandy soil, and our humid climate. With a skill set that still has me surprised when my radishes turn out right.
But I’m not here to talk to you about melons. I’m here to talk to you about leeks. I planted a small crop last fall some time, and they are only just now ready to harvest. They are slow leeks indeed.
The leek patch was only about four feet by three, but one of the great things about leeks is that you can plant them close together. If I ever decided to farm for a living (perish the thought!) I would certainly settle on a tall, thin crop because you get so much more from your acreage. This one small patch of leeks yielded an entire bushel.
Well, it was a bushel before the haircut. After the haircut, it was about ten pounds.
Although leeks keep quite well in the refrigerator, I didn’t want to either sacrifice the considerable space they take up or feel pressure to have leeks on the menu every night until they’re gone. So I froze them.
Over the last couple of years I’ve actually gotten pretty good at processing vegetables, so I’m going to puff up my chest and tell you, in my most didactic tone, how to do it.
First, you take a leek.
I know, enough with the leek jokes.
First, you give them a haircut. You have to cut off all the dark green leaves that are inedibly fibrous. But don’t be overzealous and go all high-and-tight. I think people routinely throw away large swaths of leek that are perfectly fine. If you’re not sure where to draw the line, cut off a piece and taste. Imagine it after it’s been poached in butter and white wine. Is it inedibly fibrous?
Keep as much as you can. After all, you grew these things. To throw out edible parts would be a terrible waste.
After the haircut, cut off the hairy part on the end, and give your leeks a thorough washing. Leeks can get very dirty, with little patches of soil hiding under a layer halfway up the damn thing, and the best way to get them clean is to split them lengthwise and rinse.
After the rinsing comes the slicing and for God’s sake break out the Cuisinart and the slicing blade. Slicing ten pounds of leeks by hand will result in a shot afternoon, carpal tunnel syndrome, and suboptimally large slices.
At this point, you can freeze them or, if you’re going all out, vacuum-seal them and then freeze them. But I think that would be a mistake. I’ve always thought that vegetables freeze better if they’re blanched, and I discovered there’s actual, genuine science that backs me up.
If you cook vegetables before you freeze them, not only is there less water in them (and it’s water that expands as it freezes, breaking down cell walls and turning vegetables to much), but they get some of their enzymes inactivated, and will last much longer in the freezer.
But don’t let me catch you blanching the old-fashioned way, with that huge pot of boiling water going on the stove. The microwave is the by far the best tool for this job. Mine gets used for it so often that I have named her Blanche.
All you need to do is put a covered bowl (I use those silicone lids on a Pyrex bowl) full of sliced leeks (or kale, or green beans, or Brussels sprouts) in the microwave, and zap them long enough for them to soften. You don’t need to add water because you just rinsed them and there’s enough water adhering to them to get the job done.
For leeks, in my microwave, four minutes is about right. Experiment until you find the right timing.
Once the leeks are blanched, dump them in a colander to drain and cool. Then pack them into Ziploc freezer bags in portions that make sense for the kind of cooking you do, squeeze the air out, and Bob’s your uncle.
Then go back to the hoophouse, harvest the kale, and start the process all over again.