A flowering leek is a member of the onion family which has been bred to produce distinctive bulb-like flowers on the end of narrow, firm stalks. The plant is also sometimes called a Chinese chive, Chinese flowering leek, or garlic leek. As the alternate names suggest, flowering leeks are very popular in Chinese and Asian cuisine in general. They also have a strong garlicky flavor which can add zest to a wide number of dishes. Many Asian markets carry the delicacy, both fresh and dried, and flowering leeks can also be grown at home.
At first glance, flowering leeks look more like chives, with thin green spears for leaves and the characteristic flowering stalks. The plant can be used much like regular chives, since all portions of the plant above ground are edible. Many cooks snip the leaves and stems in a variety of dishes from stir fries to quiches for flavor. The stems and buds are also treated like vegetables in many Chinese dishes.
Typically, the flowers are yellowish to white, and they look rather a lot like bulbs. As the flowers start to open up, they become papery and unpleasant to the taste, so they are harvested before they fully mature. When used fresh, flowering leek should be used in moderation, since the flavor and odor can be very strong. Dried flowering leek can be used in more abundance, although it can still pack a punch.
When seeking out flowering leek in the store, look for crisp specimens without any discoloration or slime. Keep the vegetable under refrigeration for up to three days, with the stems in water if you need to store it longer. Dried flowering leek should be kept in a cool dry place out of the light. Avoid sprinkling it directly over food, both to avoid humidity in the spice jar and to prevent overspicing. Generally, the dried vegetable will last for around six months to a year.
If you want to grow flowering leeks, start them from seed in the late spring or early summer, after the last risk of frost. The plants enjoy rich soil which has been worked with compost and a small amount of mulch, and they like to be kept moist but not soggy. As the plants mature, snip off leaves and buds, leaving the rest of the plant to grow. Ultimately, the plants will become exhausted at the end of the summer, at which point they can be taken out to make room for something else in that vegetable bed.