Leeks (botanical name Allium porrum) belong to the Alliaceae family. This is considered to be a vegetable, whose stalk or stem is edible. Precisely speaking, the stem of the leeks is actually a pack of leaf sheaths. In addition, the onion or bulb-like base of the plant is also consumed. The uncooked leek is firm and crunchy and mildly tastes like an onion. A variety of leeks are available and they are broadly classified into two groups - the summer varieties and over wintering varieties. As leeks contain elevated levels of vitamins and essential minerals, this vegetable has a vital role in defending our body against several diseases and health problems. In addition, consumption of leeks also helps to encourage optimal health, while fortifying our immune system.
People from various cultures across the world are familiar with leeks and have been using them for therapeutic purposes for several centuries. These days, people usually use leeks in the form of a food as well as a flavoring agent.
Chemical analysis of leeks has revealed that this vegetable encloses considerable minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. It has also been established that consumption of leeks offers significant health benefits.
Leaks contain a reasonable number of calories. For instance, 100 grams of freshly obtained leek stalks offer 61 calories. In addition, the stalks of this vegetable also contain substantial amounts of both soluble as well as insoluble dietary fiber.
Compared to garlic, the content of the antioxidant called thio-sulfinites is less in leeks. However, they still contain considerable levels of these antioxidants like diallyl disulfide, diallyl disulfide and allyl propyl disulfide. These compounds are changed into allicin due to the reaction of specific enzymes, especially when the stalks of leeks were crushed, cut or smashed.
Studies undertaken in laboratories have demonstrated that allicin helps to reduce production of cholesterol by slowing down the secretion of an enzyme called HMG-CoA reductase in the liver cells. In addition, it has been discovered that allicin also possesses anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Allicin also offers other health benefits such as reducing the stiffness of blood vessels by easing the release of nitric oxide (NO) in the walls of the arteries and veins, thereby also reducing the blood pressure. Allicin also hinders the formation of platelet clots and is known to possess fibrinolytic action (breaking down clots) inside the blood vessels. In this way, allicin generally facilitates in lessening the chances of developing strokes, coronary heart disease and also peripheral vascular diseases.
Leeks are also an excellent natural source of various vitamins that are necessary for ensuring our best possible health. The leafy stem of this vegetable encloses significant amounts of many important vitamins, including folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, pyridoxine and thiamine. For instance, consuming 100 grams of freshly obtained leek stalks supplies us with 64 µg (microgram) folates. It is worth mentioning here that folic acid is necessary for cell division and DNA synthesis. Women should include adequate amounts of this nutrient in their diet during their pregnancy with a view to avoid defects in the newborn babies' neural tube.
Leeks enclose a specific nutrient combination that is extremely effective in maintaining a steady blood sugar level, especially in people who suffer from high levels of blood sugar. These nutrients comprise iron, folate, vitamin C, vitamin B6 and manganese. Interestingly, these nutrients do not inhibit assimilation of sugars into the blood vessels from the intestines. On the contrary, they work to lower the blood sugar levels by making sure that the sugars absorbed by the body are metabolized properly.
Consuming leeks on a regular basis is said to increase the levels of high density lipoprotein (HDL also called "good cholesterol"). At the same time, it helps to lower the levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL also called "bad cholesterol"). It is very important to sustain this cholesterol balance in our body, as it puts off the formation or progression of plaques inside the blood vessels, thereby decreasing the risks of cardiovascular diseases. In fact, the formation of such plaques results in the development of health conditions like diabetic heart diseases and atherosclerosis. Any progression of such plaques may even lead to a stroke or heart attack.
Consuming vegetables belonging to the genus Allium, such as leeks, may also help in lowering the levels of blood pressure, which is a main factor for people suffering from heart attacks or strokes.
As consumption of leeks is said to help in maintaining optimum health, it has been found that eating this vegetable helps to lessen the chances of developing prostate and colon cancers to a great extent.
Findings of various scientific studies have revealed that leeks are also helpful in preventing ovarian cancer. Leeks are also an excellent source of natural dietary fiber and, hence, they are effective in perking up the body's energy and promote the different biological functions, such as digestion, respiration and metabolism.
It has been found that leeks are particularly beneficial as well as necessary for women during pregnancy. This is because this vegetable encloses significant amounts of a vitamin called folate. Consuming leeks during pregnancy helps to prevent several birth defects; especially those associated with the brain and spine of the newborn - for instance, encephalitis as well as spina bifida.
It has been established long before that calcium is extremely necessary for maintaining a strong skeletal system. As leeks contain considerable amounts of calcium, this vegetable is useful for the health of the skeletal system. In addition, calcium is also needed for proper blood clot formation in our body.
Leeks enclose considerable amounts of iron, which is necessary for synthesizing hemoglobin - the protein found in red blood cells (erythrocytes) and is entrusted with the task of transporting oxygen to all areas of the body. By virtue of its iron content, leeks are able to combat various forms of anemia, particularly those caused by deficiency of iron in the body. In addition, leeks also contain vitamin C, a nutrient that is essential for absorbing iron effectively.
The antiseptic and anti-inflammatory attributes of leek help to treat health conditions like arthritis, gout and urinary tract inflammation. Drinking the juice extracted from leeks helps to treat these conditions effectively.
Similarly, the volatile oils contained by leeks make this vegetable an excellent remedy for treating problems related to the respiratory tract. Drinking the juice of leek can also help to alleviate symptoms associated with common cold, flu as well as hay fever.
Leeks are also useful for regulating the functioning of the intestines as well as motility. This is because this vegetable contains soluble as well as insoluble dietary fiber. In addition, to these health benefits, consumption of leeks on a regular basis also helps to increase the population of good bacteria in the gut, which, in turn, facilitates digestion and also reduces intestinal bloating.
This vegetable also has a high potassium content, which helps to encourage diuresis, thereby aiding in lowering as well as regulating our blood pressure. This is the main reason why people enduring hypertension or high blood pressure are often advised to drink the juice extracted from leek.
Leeks are also known to possess anti-atherosclerosis as well as anti-cholesterol actions. This vegetable helps to lower the body's assimilation of cholesterol from the intestine and, at the same time, decreases the oxidation of LDL or low density lipoprotein cholesterol in the bloodstream. In this way, leek helps to prevent the formation of plaques in the blood, which may result in the development of atherosclerosis.
This vegetable also contains considerable amounts of folate and essential minerals like phosphorus and magnesium, which are essential for the nervous system to function healthily. These nutrients aid in augmenting concentration, improving memory as well as boosting the ability of our brain to process information. Folate is necessary to put off brain or neural defects in newborns.
Drinking leek juice on a regular basis helps to cleanse the entire body. Many consider this action of leek to be most important. They argue that the purifying action of leek juice not only helps to get rid of toxins and waste substances from the body, but also improves the purity of the colon, thereby preventing many diseases and ailments.
The juice extracted from leeks is often employed in the form of a moth repellent. In fact, the entire leek plant is known to repel various insects and moles.
Apart for being used for therapeutic purposes, leeks are also consumed as a vegetable after cooking, especially their leaves and the white, sun-bleached elongated stalks. They can also be consumed raw. Cut the stalk or the onion-like bulb into small pieces and include them in your salad. Leeks have a gentle onion-like flavour accompanied with an enjoyable sweetness. The bulb of the plant is consumed raw as well as after cooking. Usually, the plant's bulbs develop in the second year of their existence - after the plant is harvested once. If you stop the plant from blooming, its bulb will grow larger. Even the flowers of leeks are eaten - they are usually consumed raw. Often leeks are used to garnish salads. However, they are rather dry and less enjoyable compared to several other plants belonging to the same genus.
The flavour of leeks is somewhat like an onion, but milder. The uncooked vegetable is firm and crunchy. Several parts of this plant including its white stalks (the portion between the roots and the stem base), the pale green parts, and to some extent the dark green portions of their leaves are edible. In addition, the bulb of the plant is also consumed. People often use leeks to add essence to stock. Usually, people throw away the dark green part of the leaves owing to its coarse texture. However, this portion can also be added to stock or sautéed. Sometimes, people tie a few leaves of leek with other herbs using a cord to make a bouquet garni.
Generally, people slice leeks into small pieces, each having a thickness of anything between 5 mm and 10 mm. As the leeks have a layered structure, they often tend to disintegrate or fall apart. There are several different ways to prepare or consume leeks and some of the common ones are mentioned below.
Boiling leeks makes the vegetable soft, while making its flavour milder. However, you ought to take special care while chopping leeks as the compact fibers that run along the vegetable will get tangles to form a ball while chewing it.
When you fry the leaves of this vegetable, it becomes crunchier, but still retains its flavour.
You can use leeks in salads and they taste excellent when consumed raw, provided the vegetables form the main ingredient of your preparation.
In addition, leeks are also used as an ingredient in various other preparations, such as leek and potato soup, cock-a-leekie soup, plain leek soups as well as vichyssoise (a cream soup prepared with potatoes and leeks, and typically served chilled).
Leeks are extremely resilient plants and have the capacity to endure the harshest winters. They should ideally be sown during the period between the latter part of January and beginning of April with a view to harvest the crop between late August and May next year. The plants are propagated from seeds that need to be sown under glass or in a properly prepared outdoor seed bed. Later, the seedlings may be transplanted to their permanent positions.
It is advisable that you plant leeks on a land that has been manured over the winter for growing beans, peas and onions. Alternatively, you may dig a site in your garden, place some properly decomposed manure or compost in the place and then plant the leeks.
Once the crop of the previous season has been harvested, turn the ground and prepare the soil afresh.
Leeks are mainly composed of water. In fact, the water content in leeks is as high as 90 percent. In addition to large amounts of water, leeks also contain vitamins A, C and K, reasonable amounts of various B vitamins (vitamins B1, B2, B3 as well as B6), folate and essential minerals like iron, calcium, phosphorus, manganese, potassium and nickel. It has been proven that leeks are a wonderful dietary food, which contains fewer calories, but are loaded with numerous nutrients and phytonutrients that are beneficial for our health.
Although consumption of leeks offers us several health benefits, it should be used with caution, for this vegetable may result in some adverse reactions. People having kidney disorders or gall bladder problems, which may be treated or untreated, should keep away from consuming leeks regularly. This vegetable contains significant quantities of oxalates, which may prove to be detrimental for the health of such people. When there is a high concentration of oxalates in the body it may crystallize and result in health disorders. Findings of several scientific studies involving leeks have demonstrated that oxalates present in this vegetable may adversely affect the body's ability to assimilate calcium.
To some extent harvesting of leeks depends on the time when they are sowed. If you sow leeks at the right time (see above), you can harvest them any time between mid-autumn and late spring. Use a spade to dig out the leeks from the ground. It is advisable that you harvest the larger leeks first and leave the smaller ones for harvesting a few weeks later, by which time they will also grow in size.