What are three-cornered leeks and how should you cook with them?
The newest allium to hit the foraging hype-train, the three-cornered leek is a great addition to your cooking repertoire. We chat to chefs and foragers on where to find them and how to use them
Haven’t you heard? Wild garlic is so last year. There’s a hot new pungent plant in town: she’s cool, she loves flowers, she can hang out with bluebells and snowdrops but possesses the universally romantic aroma of garlic, and she’s coming to a plot of greenery near you. No, it’s not Liz Truss hiding from PMQs, it’s the three-cornered leek! “Not another niched foraged ingredient, I beg you”, we hear you say and, well, we hear you. After two years of scavenging our nearby green spaces for new alliums and the will to live when the only thing bringing us joy was the confines of a bubbling pot, it’s fair to say we’re all semi-professional horticulturalists. It’s surprising there is any prolific edible greenery left for anyone to discover. Well, just as we were all ready to give up on our allium-mania, a new bombshell has entered the villa.
Known as onion weed in Australia and New Zealand, this flowering plant crops up around the country from November until early spring, and makes a wonderful replacement for all manner of similar ingredients, from wild garlic to bog standard leeks. If you haven’t seen it in your local park, then there’s a high chance you’ve noticed it on the menu at your favourite restaurants or on the product list at Natoora. And while it has a striking similarity to other flowers like bluebells and snowdrops, three-cornered leek can be easily identified, says Imogen Davis, director at Native restaurant and foraging expert. “The young leaves of a three-cornered leek look similar to white bluebells, but have a green stripe through their white petals,” she says. “A helpful tool for identifying them is to feel for the triangular cross-section of the flower stems - this is what gives them their name.”
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If you’re heading out into the wild (or just, you know, into your local park) to look for three-cornered leeks, you shouldn’t have any trouble stumbling upon them, says Harriet Mansell, chef and owner of Robin Wylde and Lilac in Lyme Regis, where you’ll see all manner of foraged ingredients on her menus. “You can find three cornered leeks pretty much everywhere, around the outskirts of parks, on road banks and in people’s gardens,” Mansell says. She echoes Imogen’s advice on locating them, adding “people can sometimes confuse them with snowdrops, so look out also for the distinctive three-cornered stem and garlicy smell when you crush the leaf in your hand.”
While foraging rule number one is don’t uproot the plant, and leave enough for the person who might come after you, Mansell reassures that this is one plant where those rules can be overlooked every now and again. “Three cornered leeks are a plant that the amateur forager shouldn’t be too worried about when it comes to uprooting the bulb occasionally as it’s such an invasive species and grows in abundance all over the UK,” she says. “It’s technically considered a weed – albeit a very tasty one – so it’s something that can be safely and happily foraged.”
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So, once you’ve, erm, scavenged through your local park, traversed the countryside and definitely not popped into your neighbour’s garden under the cover of darkness in order to get your hands on some three-cornered leeks, how are they best cooked? While we could regale you with our favourite recipes, we thought we might leave this one to the experts, picking the brains of some of our favourite chefs to see how they use this foraged wonder.
Harriet Mansell, chef and owner of Robin Wylde and Lilac
Three-cornered leeks have a flavour reminiscent of wild garlic, chives, and spring onion so at Robin Wylde and Lilac, we often slice them and use it as a finishing herb – perfect for topping soups and stews. We also use it as a replacement for onion; it’s great pickled or cooked on the barbecue. Any allium tastes great cooked over the coals! The flowers are a beautiful garnish whilst still really packing a punch flavour wise.
Chris Shaw, head chef at Townsend
At Townsend we use all forms of leek quite a bit. I like to use three-cornered leeks in particular as a replacement for chives and wild garlic. They are also great finely chopped and added into sauces like a butter or cream sauce to cut through the richness. You can also make lovely oils with them to brighten up a dish. If you can get your hands on some, they're great with fish.
Will Lockwood, head chef at Roots
Three corned leeks are normally amongst the first shoots and flowers we get to work with every year. They’re a grassy looking shoot with white flowers and have a mild garlicky/onion taste. At home, they’re great to blitz through leek and potato soup for extra flavour and colour. They have a relatively short season so making them into pesto with hazelnuts and a British cheddar would be a great and versatile way to use them.
Robin Gill, chef and restaurateur
Three cornered leeks actually start coming through in November but they don’t flower until Spring. I treat it like I would a chive - it’s a slightly garlicky version really. It’s best to chop them up and then stir through soup and broths in the last minute before serving. It has a slightly sweeter flavour when cooked. You can also pickle the buds, like you would do with wild garlic, after it flowers and then you can enjoy them all year round. Try using them like you would a caper in raw dishes like tartare. You can also ferment three cornered leeks. Pop them in a Kilner jar with a brine solution of 3% salt and they will lacto ferment. These are incredible in a fish sauce or draped on top of a lovely piece of fish.
Imogen Davis, director at Native
The flavour of three-cornered leeks is often likened to a cross between spring onions and chives, so little cooking is needed. Use them fresh and chop them through mashed potatoes, add to fried mushrooms on toast, mix into pestos or use to top soups - the possibilities are endless!