Before my ancestors were shipped off to Virginia for lampooning the local gentry and skipping out on enormous bar tabs, they lived in a beautiful old country on the west coast of Britain known as Wales. After prolonged contention, Wales–like Scotland and Ireland–has been assimilated into the United Kingdom, but like their sister subjugants, Wales observes its own saint’s day, the Feast of St. David, which falls on March 1.
It’s a crying shame that the blessed David’s feast has been eclipsed in this country by that humbug Patrick’s on the 17th; after all, compared to David, Patrick was second-rate. David was able to make the earth beneath him shift and rise, a truly impressive feat, whereas Patrick’s most notable claim to fame is the single-handed extinction of Ireland’s indigenous snake population. Not only that, but David was a true Welshman, a native of Cardigan, while Patrick himself was actually from Wales. His abduction by the Irish can be interpreted on many levels, none of which are remotely spiritual.
The Irish praise the potato (a 17th century import from America), but the Welsh glory in the leek, which has been cultivated in Britain for millennia. Welsh soldiers wore leeks to distinguish themselves into battle as early as the days of King Arthur, himself a Welshman. As a parting shot, let me add that daffodils, the national flower of Wales, strike a brighter, more noble note in a vase than a bunch of tufted clover ever will.
Leeks are basically big-ass green onions, which place them in the important botanical family Alliaceae; all onions, as well as garlic, chives, shallots and their ilk, belong to this group of herbs. Leeks are a cool-season crop, which goes a long way to explain why they’re not a familiar item on the Southern sideboard, but I can usually grab a bunch (about three stalks) of leeks for about that many dollars any time of the year at my local supermarket. My Scots ancestors used chicken and leeks with barley in their jauntily-named cock-a-leekie soup. Leeks make a beautiful addition to any stir-fry (working well with peppers), and thin slices of leek in a quiche look nice and taste great.
Leeks also take exceptionally well to braising and are great in a gratin. Use about a half cup prepared leek per person. Cut away the roots and all but the last inch or so of the green away and wash very well. Slice and layer the rounds in a gratin or baking dish. Cover with a cream sauce, a béchamel or better yet a Mornay. Keep the seasonings simple, just a bit of salt and pepper, nothing more. A liberal sprinkling of good hard cheese on top is a great idea, but for Pete’s sake get an honest wedge and grate it; don’t use that sawdust in a green shaker. Place in a hot oven (375) until bubbling; fifteen minutes should do it. Serve hot.