Local leeks can be found now at Oxford’s Farmers Market. Local leeks are much smaller, and as a result milder-flavored and more tender than those typically found in supermarkets.
The leek is the national emblem of Wales. Welsh people wear leeks on St. David’s Day, March 1, in honor of St. David, the country’s Patron Saint.
Legend has it that Welsh soldiers fighting the English some 1,500 years ago were ordered to identify themselves by wearing a leek on their helmets. Who knows if it actually happened, and if it was St. David or someone else who issued the order.
In any event, a thousand years later, Shakespeare sealed the legend’s “reality,” when he had Henry V wear a leek at the Battle of Agincourt. Shakespeare had Henry remind theater-goers that the House of Tudor was largely Welsh. “For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman.”
Leeks — especially just-picked local ones — must be trimmed and thoroughly cleaned before cooking. First, trim tough dark green portions from the end of the leek. Small local leeks have less of these tough outer leaves than do the large older leeks, another good reason to buy fresh young local ones.
Second, slice the leek lengthwise leaving an inch or two at the root end. Wash the mop-like tangle of leaves under running water until all of the soil has been washed away. As you wash away the clinging soil, you can appreciate the importance of buying local leeks grown in nutritious pesticide-free soil.
Local potatoes have also been available at Oxford’s Farmers Market, so I decided to make soup with the local leeks and potatoes. Combine 1 leek with 1/2 pound peeled and quartered potatoes in a pot with 1 pint of water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer gently until the potatoes are soft, around 1/2 hour.
Puree the soup in a blender and return to the pot. Add 1/3 cup creme fraiche and heat gently over low heat.
Add 1 tablespoon of herbs, whatever strikes your fancy. At various times, I’ve used chervil, parsley, and a Mediterranean blend.
If the leeks are young and small, you can roast them whole. Place the leeks on aluminum foil, drizzle with olive oil, ground pepper, and garlic, add a fresh herb such as thyme or basil, seal the package, and grille or roast for 5 or 10 minutes.
Patricia Wells, the American cookbook writer who lives in France, has a leek recipe called “rich and poor,” adapted from the famous French chef Alain Ducasse. In France, writes Wells, leek is often called the asparagus of the poor.
Combining “rich and poor” is perfect this time of year, because local leeks and asparagus are both in season. But I found the Wells recipe too fussy. A simpler option is to place several small asparagus in the same foil packet with leeks, as described above. Local asparagus is over-abundant now but will quickly disappear.
MOON Co-op is Oxford’s consumer-owned full-service grocery, featuring natural, local, organic, sustainable, and Earth-friendly products. The store, located at 516 S. Locust St. in Oxford, is open to the public every day. Visit it online mooncoop.coop.