On Monday I drifted rather limply around the allotment, in a weakened state during a bout of worsened asthma following a virus, wondering what would be easy to harvest for a meal.
Newly emerging Babington leeks
I decided to pull a bunch of these young Babington leeks to use in a soup. (Now that they are established on the plot the leeks seem to be re-emerging in early winter, not in spring as they did at first).
Babington leek, elephant garlic and air onion bulbs
I also pulled up a small elephant garlic bulb (at centre in the photo) and a clump of Finnish air onions (right in photo). (The air onions are still a bit of a mystery. I got seed for them from an Ebay seller along with a note describing how they develop top-set onions and generally behave like tree onions. So far mine have just developed Welsh onion-like flowerheads followed by seeds. It will be interesting to watch to see what they do in future years).
Babington leek soup during a time of illness seemed a good idea. I surmised that as they emit a strong garlic smell when chopped they must contain alliin, a precursor of the compound allicin which gives garlic its distinctive odour and which is often reported to have potent cold-fighting properties (and several other therapeutic effects). I haven't been able to find any measures of alliin in Babington leek but I did find one study which found that elephant garlic (a close relative of Babington leek but rather less strongly garlic-scented when crushed) contains about a quarter of the alliin content of garlic.
Babington leeks in late spring
Alliin is found in intact garlic cells. Nearby but physically separated from the alliin resides the enzyme alliinase. When the cells are damaged by a predator or pathogen (including cooks with garlic crushers or sharp knives) alliin and alliinase combine to form allicin. Alliinase doesn't survive cooking but allicin is more heat-stable so the advice is to crush garlic and then let it sit for ten minutes to allow the allicin to form before preparing your dish.
(I'm not sure of the state of scientific research on garlic and allicin therapy. I must admit I ate a lot of raw crushed garlic before and during this latest cold and subsequent chest infection to no good avail - but I'm not quite ready to give up all trust in garlic yet!)
So I crushed and chopped my alliums (both bulbs, leaves and green shoots) and sautéed them slowly in oil. When they were softened I added a pint and a half of vegetable stock, two bay leaves and some thyme and some chopped scorzonera root to give some thickness, and simmered the soup until the scorzonera was cooked and then removed the bay leaves and blended and seasoned it.
Babington leek soup
Well it didn't taste too good. It was bitter. I think I was hoping for something slightly akin to lovely French onion soup or at least to leek and potato soup. So I added a chopped potato and some more water and seasoning and simmered and blended it again. Better, less bitter and good enough for me to wolf down a bowlful, but well, not a great soup. Perhaps I didn't sauté long enough or maybe the inclusion of the leaves was a mistake. It was the first time I had cooked with the bulbs of Babington leeks. I will try them again, perhaps roasted next time, but other suggestions from more sure-footed cooks than I are very welcome!
N.B. I sell a range of perennial vegetable plants on my website.