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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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10.15.08

Leeks and Celts

Food History, Recipes


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Leeks

When King Henry says, in Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” that he will wear a leek in his cap, he is identifying himself with his Welsh subjects. The reason this created a connection is that, when King Cadwallader and the Welsh faced the Saxons in battle in AD 640, the Welsh soldiers identified themselves by wearing leeks in their caps. Leeks have been consumed for so long in Wales and other Celtic countries that some hypothesize that the British Isles are a possible point of origin. Other scholars say the Mediterranean is where they emerged. They were popular in Egypt and ancient Rome (Nero’s nickname was “leekeater”), the Chinese were praising leeks by 1500 BC, and leeks were being written about in Mesopotamia as early as 2100 BC. So wherever they started, they clearly were popular and on the move pretty much from the get-go.

If leeks did start in the Mediterranean, rather than colder climes, as some hypothesize, then the Romans would have brought them to Britain when they invaded. So Britain has had them for a couple millennia, even if leeks didn’t actually start out there.

Europe has long valued leeks—though, ironically, leeks have also long been associated with poverty. Leeks appear in a large number of local and regional specialties, and are insulted with almost the same frequency as they appear. They are sometimes called “poor man’s asparagus.” The French word for leek, poireau, is also slang for “simpleton.” And there is a saying in Italian that something is “not worth a leek leaf.” And yet, they keep showing up on the menu.

Actually, comparing the leek to asparagus is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Both are members of the lily family. And leeks are grown rather like white asparagus is grown—and for the same reason. Leeks are kept white by mounding dirt up around them as they grow. This is also why leeks have to be washed carefully, as leaves have to push up through mounds of dirt and sand, and they tend to accumulate grit (and the more white you see, the more likely there is to be soil of some sort—if there’s only an inch of white, you may not see much dirt between the layers).

Ireland being a Celtic country, leeks are popular. In fact, there is even a story about St. Patrick and leeks (he is said to have created them out of rushes). Oats are also massively popular among Celtic people. So the Irish leek and oatmeal soup given below is a very Celtic thing. This is an amazingly delicious soup—the milk and oatmeal combine to make it really thick and creamy, and leeks make it wonderfully flavorful. Enjoy.

Brotchán Foltchep
(Irish Leek and Oatmeal Soup)

3–6 leeks (depending on size; see Notes)
2 Tbs. butter
1/4 cup oatmeal (uncooked)
3 cups beef stock or broth
2 cups milk
pinch of ground mace
salt and pepper to taste
chopped parsley (optional)

Clean the leeks thoroughly (see notes). Slice the leeks in 1/2-inch slices (just the white and pale green section—as you move up the leek, you can remove outer layers, if they are dark and tough—but you’ll just be using the straight part of the leek, not the fanned-out top part).

Melt the butter in a large pot, add the leeks, and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until leeks are soft but not brown. Sprinkle the oatmeal over the leeks and stir them together. Then add the stock and milk. Add a good pinch of ground mace, plus salt and pepper to taste. (If you use salted broth, you may not need much salt.) Simmer over medium heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Garnish with parsley, if you wish. Serves. 4.

Notes: Leeks vary in size, even in the same store-packed bunch, so the number of leeks needed will vary. You need about 3 cups of sliced leek for this recipe (a little over is fine, but you don’t want much less). One really big leek, 1-1/2 inches or more in diameter, will come close to giving you one full cup of sliced leek. If leeks are smaller—say 1 inch in diameter or so—you’ll get about 2/3 cup or less. So buy accordingly.

Because of the way leeks are planted, they usually accumulate sand among the layers. Cut off the top of the leek (where it fans out). This dark-green part can be reserved if you’re making stock, but should be discarded if all you’re making is this recipe. Cut off the roots, then split the leek and rinse, separating layers slightly to make sure you get all the dirt.

I generally use 2-percent milk in this and get excellent results, but whole milk would be creamier—and more traditional.

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