Fluellen: Your majesty says very true: if your majesties is remembered of it, the Welchmen did goot service in a garden where leeks did grow, wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps; which, your majesty knows, is an honourable badge of the service: and, I do believe, your majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek upon Saint Tavy’s [St. David’s] day.
King Henry: I wear it for a memorable honour: for I am a Welch, you know, good countryman.
(William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV, Scene 7)
Leeks? What’s that? Some kind of joke? I mean, only two cookbooks exist just about leeks and one is called First You Take a Leek: Recipes with a Gourmet Touch.
No joke. Not at all. Related to the onion family, the more subtly‑flavored leek (Allium porrum) resembles nothing more than a scallion gone wild. Winter is a good time to cook leeks, since they are at their prime in the winter and lend themselves to a variety of dishes. Gratins, tarts, soups, and more are all possibilities when leeks are available.
My first biting of leeks took place at the table of a Swiss friend, who served the leeks with thin slices of boiled ham wrapped around parboiled leeks and topped it all off with a rich, creamy white sauce swimming in cheese.
It reminded me of asparagus dishes I’d eaten. And not surprisingly.
“Poor man’s asparagus,” as leeks are often called, originated in the Middle East over 3000 years ago. Egyptian pharaohs fed leeks to their pyramid builders, and someone painted pictures of leeks on the walls of those massive tombs. And the Israelites, lamenting their fate in the desert of the Sinai, in Numbers 11:5 recalled nostalgically the leeks they had enjoyed in Egypt. In the wake of the trade caravans of the times and the consequent exchange of goods, leeks soon became a popular menu item throughout the Mediterranean area. Hippocrates, Greek physician and father of modern medicine, prescribed leeks for nosebleeds. The Romans believed that leeks improved one’s speaking voice and perhaps there is some truth to this, as the famous Roman orator Nero daily ate leek soup, earning the name “Porrophagus” or “Leek Eater.” Later, leeks tagged along with the Romans on their long marches of conquest to the north.
In England, leeks became especially popular‑‑-thanks to the Romans‑‑-and our word “leek” actually stems from the Old English word “leac,” meaning “plant.” In France, leek—or poireau—can also mean “simpleton.” To celebrate the Welsh holiday of St. David’s Day, the Welsh wear pieces of leeks in their buttonholes, thus commemorating King Cadawallader’s victory over the Saxons in 640 AD. During battle, the Welsh troops wore pieces of leeks to distinguish themselves from the enemy, since there were no uniforms in those long ago days. Shakespeare noted that well in his play, Henry V.
Leeks appear sporadically in medieval cookbooks. One of the first written renditions of a leek recipes is found in Form of Cury, a 14th century English manuscript (“Cury” meant nothing more or less than “food.”)
Take persel, sawge, grene garlec, chibolles, oynouns, leek, borage, myntes, porrettes, fennel, and toun cressis, rew, rosemarye, purslarye: laue and waische hem clene. Pike hem. Pluk hem small wi* *yn honde, and myng hem wel with rawe oile; lay on vyneger and salt, and serue it forth.
J. Murrell, in A New Booke of Cookery (1615), includes the following recipe for boiled salad:
Diuers Sallets boyled. Parboyle Spinage, and chop it fine, with the edges of two hard Trenchers vpon a boord, or the backe of two chopping Kniues: then set them on a Chafingdish of coales with Butter and Uinegar. Season it with Sinamon, Ginger, Sugar, and a few parboyld Currins. Then cut hard Egges into quarters to garnish it withall, and serue it vpon sippets. So may you serue Burrage, Buglosse, Endiffe, Suckory, Coleflowers, Sorrel, Marigold leaues, water Cresses, Leekes boyled, Onions, Sparragus, Rocket, Alexanders. Parboyle them, and season them all alike: whether it be with Oyle and Uinegar, or Butter and Uinegar, Sinamon, Ginger, Sugar, and Butter: Egges are necessary, or at least very good for all boyld Sallets.
So, long-known and eaten, if not loved, as they were in Europe, leeks came late to the American table, relative newcomers, relegated to playing a minor role in American cookery. No wonder, since many sailors probably knew leeks in the rather repulsive stew known as “Lobscouse.” John Josselyn, in New England’s Rarities Discovered (1672), mentions wild onions/leeks (see “ramps” below). But for the most part, leeks simply never have “cut the mustard” in America, in spite of several superb French dishes to the contrary. Fanny Farmer included recipes for “Leek and Potato Soup” and “Leeks on Toast” in her tome, The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1918). Mrs. Beeton (see my post “Mrs. Beeton, I Presume“) might be responsible for the cold shoulder given to leeks in the nineteenth century and later; in The Book of Household Management (1861), she includes two recipes, both calling for leeks to be boiled within an inch of their lives: “Leek Soup” and “Commonly Called Cock-a-Leekie.”
Wild leeks, called “ramps,” inspire festivals and recipes in the American South, particularly West Virginia. The ramp, often called “wild leek,” is a wild onion native to North America. Resembling the bulb of a scallion, the leaves of the ramp plant look unique. John Mariani, author of “The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink,” states that “rams,” or “ramson,” gave birth to “ramps,” a hold-over from Elizabethan dialect, a word used for “wild garlic.” “Ramps” first appeared in print in English in 1530, but entered local speech much earlier in the oral culture of English immigrants living in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Leeks play a less militaristic role these days and grace the soup pot or tart tin rather than a soldier’s shoulder. Cold winter nights grow warmer when leeks are on the menu and the cook would do well to always have leeks on hand. Buy leeks with roots still attached and store them, well-wrapped, in the vegetable crisper no longer than 3‑4 days. Cleaning leeks well before cooking is necessary. Why? Often particles of sand or dirt clamber in and position themselves between the oniony layers. Cut off the rough green leaves, leaving only the whitish portion, and continue by cutting off the roots as well. At the leaf end, cut a cross and wash the end under cold running water. This will help to remove any dirt particles that may remain embedded between the layers. You are now ready to prepare the leeks according to recipe instructions.
“Leek Tart”, easy to prepare ahead in steps, makes a delicious light lunch or dinner dish, especially accompanied by a green salad or a piece of fruit. “Cream of Leek and Potato Soup” takes only about 35 minutes to cook, and serves as an excellent “starter” for a roast beef dinner or as a light supper when joined with lots of good bread and a salad. “Cock-a-Leekie Soup,” a Scottish dish, finds a place at Burns Night dinners commemorating the great Scottish poet, Robert burns.
Once you’ve tried leeks, you’ll agree that they’re no laughing matter … just scrumptious.
“Ne valer una fronda di porri.”
(It’s not worth a leek leaf.)
Leeks are low in calories, rich in dietary fiber and vitamin A, and-some say-act as a natural diuretic. Vitamin C, iron, and fiber also play starring role when leeks appear.
1 recipe pie pastry for a 10‑inch pie pan
3 lbs. leeks, trimmed, cleaned, and finely chopped
4 T. butter
2 T. vegetable oil
1 t. salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 jumbo eggs
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 T. sour cream
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/4 cups chopped cooked ham
1 1/4 cup grated Swiss cheese
Prepare the pastry and line the 10‑inch pie plate. Refrigerate pastry shell until ready to use.
Heat the butter and oil in a large cast‑iron skillet over moderate heat and dump in the leeks, salt, and pepper to taste. Cook, covered, until leeks are softened but not browned, about 20‑25 minutes. Drain leeks in a colander to get rid of excess liquid.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Meanwhile, mix together the sour cream, cream, eggs, nutmeg, pinch of black pepper, and 1 cup EACH of ham and cheese in a large mixing bowl.
Stir in the leeks and mix well. Pour the mixture into the prepared pastry shell, smooth the top, and sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup of ham and then the remaining 1/4 cup of cheese. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and put tart into the oven.
Bake 30‑40 minutes or until top is browned and center is slightly firm to the touch. Serve warm or at room temperature.
CREAM OF LEEK AND POTATO SOUP
3 large leeks, trimmed, cleaned, and finely chopped
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
3 T. butter or vegetable oil
3 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
6 cups homemade chicken stock or water
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup milk or cream
3 T. chopped parsley or fresh chives for garnish
Heat the butter or oil a large heavy saucepan over medium‑high heat and saute’ the leeks and onion until wilted and transparent. Add the potatoes and saute’ for 1 minute more. Pour in the stock or water (stock gives the soup an especially rich flavor), salt, and pepper. Bring the soup to a boil, lower the heat to simmer, and cook for 30 minutes or more until vegetables are tender. Off the heat, stir in the milk or cream, return the pot to the heat, and heat through (DO NOT BOIL), about 4 minutes.
Serve the soup garnished with parsley or chives.
1 stewing chicken, trussed
10 to 12 medium-sized leeks (about 2 lbs.), trimmed, washed, and sliced as described above
2 quarts beef stock
1 piece smoked bacon, about ¼ cup
Bouquet garni of 3 whole clove, 1 blade mace, 6 sprigs parsley and 6 peppercorns, tied in cheesecloth
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Freshly ground allspice
4 fluid ounces Scotch whiskey
2 dried prunes
Place the chicken in a large pot with three or four of the leeks and the stock. Add the bouquet garni. Bring to a boil, skim and then cook gently for 2 hours or longer, until the chicken is tender, when it should be removed. Add the remainder of the leeks cut into 1-inch lengths; reserve 1 small leek, cut into very thin slices for garinsh. Add salt, pepper, allspice, and whiskey. Simmer gently until leeks are tender. Add prunes 30 minutes before serving. Debone the chicken and chop the meat and add to the soup. Warm through. Meanwhile, heat a few tablespoons of oil in a small skillet and fry the remaining leek until it frizzles like singed hair. Garnish the soup with the fried leeks and serve.
TWO BOOKS ABOUT LEEKS
First You Take a Leek: Recipes with a Gourmet Touch, by Maxine Saltonstall
The Leek Cookbook, by Mary Hamilton
© 2008 C. Bertelsen