With all the fuss about shamrocks and leprechauns, we could easily forget that St. Patrick was a Welsh boy who first set foot in Ireland because Irish pirates kidnapped him.
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we should think about leeks, the Welsh national vegetable. There’s as much magic in them as in any leprechaun. Spring leeks are a revelation in their tenderness and delicate flavor.
For anyone used to the thicker, tougher specimens of fall and winter, leeks may seem as ordinary as their close relative, the onion. But I have a soft spot for spring leeks and the way they shine in simple dishes. Maybe it’s because of the time I’ve spent in France, where simmered leeks vinaigrette are served as a cold starter in the spring, when they’re newly in season.
I was taught to hunt for the best leeks at springtime markets. Search for those that are tender and slim, with a nice length of white stem. They need very little trimming before they’re simmered whole in a shallow pan of water, sometimes with a touch of white wine. It takes a little patience, but the texture is magically silky, the flavor is subtle and mellow, and the vinaigrette adds the perfect zing of acidity.
Leeks make another stunning solo performance in leek tart, called flamiche in Northern France, where it’s a specialty. (The word “flamiche” actually comes from the Flemish word for “cake.”) The stars of the tart are leeks, butter and cream. The leeks are cooked until they practically melt, and then baked in an egg-and-cream custard, much like a quiche. To round out the cast of flavors, add Gruyère or Swiss cheese to the filling, or sauté the leeks with bacon or pancetta. For a fresh supper, serve leek tart with a salad of mixed spring greens.
The Welsh, Irish and French have staked their claims to leeks, but you can claim them, too. Let them inspire you this spring.
Flamiche (Leek Tart)
(Adapted from “The Art of the Tart” by Tamasin Day-Lewis)
•1 cup flour (may substitute 1/2 or 1/4 cup with whole-wheat flour)
•1/4 cup cornmeal
•4 tablespoons butter
•2 1/2 tablespoons ice water
•3 pounds leeks (approximately 4-5), washed, trimmed and sliced
into 1/2-inch rounds
•3 tablespoons butter
•1 tablespoon water
•2/3 cup half-and-half
•1/4 cup Swiss cheese, grated
•1 egg and 2 egg yolks
•Salt and pepper to taste
•Pinch of nutmeg
For crust, pulse flour, cornmeal and water in food processor until they resemble coarse crumbs. Add enough ice water so that dough begins to form a ball. Remove from food processor, flatten into disk, and chill at least 30 minutes. Roll out to fit 8- or 9-inch pie plate. Preheat oven to 350 F.
Sauté leeks in butter and water on low heat, covered, until very tender (approximately 30 minutes). Cool before piling into prepared crust. Mix half-and-half, cheese, eggs and seasonings. Pour mixture over leeks in pie shell. Bake 35-40 minutes, or until custard has set.