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Herb Appeal

What to like about leeks.

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Before my ancestors were shipped off to Virginia for lampooning the local gentry and skipping out on big bar tabs, they lived in a beautiful country on the west coast of Britain known as Wales. Wales is a very old part of the world that has long since been assimilated (not without some degree of argument) into the United Kingdom. But, like other members of the U.K., Wales still observes its own saint's day, the Feast of St. David, which falls on March 1st.

I have Irish ancestors too, but I have to admit I think it's a real shame that Patrick's feast eclipses David's. After all, compared to David, Patrick was strictly low-rent; David was able to make the earth beneath him shift and rise, whereas Patrick's most notable claim to fame is the single-handed extinction of harmless native reptiles.

The Irish might praise the potato (another import, which throws a suspicious light upon shamrocks), but the Welsh glory in the leek, which has been cultivated in the Old World for millennia. Welsh warriors wore leek leaves into battle to distinguish themselves as early as the days of King Arthur, himself a Welshman, and if the Irish ever wore potatoes into battle, it would have been much later, since potatoes weren't known there until the 17th century, when the Irish suffered their most humiliating defeats at the hands of the English.

Leeks are basically big, green onions, which places them in the very important culinary family of Alliaceae. All onions, as well as garlic, chives, and shallots, belong to this group of herbs. If you'll pardon a brief horticultural digression, those wild onions that disfigure your lawn in the very early spring also belong to this family; known in earlier days as ramps, these blots on your landscape were once a folk treatment for rural people in the South, who would stew them to alleviate what they called the "winter colic," a mild form of scurvy (vitamin C deficiency).

Leeks are often called "the poor man's asparagus" because of their mild and savory flavor. Leeks take well to any sort of treatment you'd usually reserve for asparagus; they're a beautiful addition to any stir-fry (working well with sweet peppers), and more formal preparations involve a gratin with a nice cream sauce or Mornay (try either, lightly peppered, simply with toast or as a side to braised pork). They also take a Hollandaise with ease.

But leeks are used mostly in potages. A traditional Welsh dish is a poultry stew with leeks, but as a concession to my cousin Celts from across the Irish Sea, I add potatoes.

Chicken Stew with Leeks and Potatoes

Wash, trim, and cut the white of two leeks into thin slices and mince the greens. Sauté these in butter with a bit of garlic, then stew with a whole fryer, two chopped stalks of celery, and two bay leaves in a weak poultry broth to cover. Simmer until the bird is just done. Remove chicken, skin and bone, chop the meat, and add to the broth. Cook the broth down until a good strength. Boil red potatoes separately until just done, cut into cubes, and add to the soup; season with salt, fine pepper, thyme, and a bit of rosemary. Serve with good bread; I like rye, but soda bread is more traditional.

Cymru am byth!

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