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Leeks: for flavor halfway between garlic and onion

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As with so many vegetables of ancient lineage, there are several legends connected with the leek, whose flavor is halfway between garlic and onion but with none of the latter's bite.

Leeks have had a peripatetic history but achieved their true glorification in Wales, where they are worn proudly in the hats of all Welshmen every St. David's Day, March 1.

It was on his advice that the Welsh troops wore leeks in their helmets to distinguish them from the enemy, the Saxons, whom they defeated in the Battle of Heathfield in the 7th century.

When purchasing, look for bright, green leaves and white stems that are firm and not woody or stringy. Leeks require very careful washing, as they grow deep in sandy soil.

If they are to be used whole, split the leaves down to the white portion and wash under running cold water until all sand or dirt is gone.

The best cooking method is braising. Simmer the cleaned leeks in a combination of butter or oil and water, milk or meat stock until the liquid evaporates and the vegetables are tender, yet still hold their shape.

This takes about 20 minutes in a covered skillet. Cook them without browning to prevent toughness and a bitter flavor.

Leeks are most often thought of in connection with soups such as vichyssoise or cock-a-leekie or as a pot vegetable to flavor broth, but they are delicious dressed with melted butter, hollandaise, or a rich cream sauce with dill or parsley, or served cold a la Grecque or under a vinaigrette sauce.

Puree them to serve with roast meats and poultry dishes. Slice them and simmer in butter, then fold into quiche fillings and omelets. Welsh Leek Soup

5 large boiling potatoes 10 cups water 1 teaspoon salt 5 medium-size leeks 1 small onion 4 tablespoons butter or margarine 2 tablespoons flour 3/4 cup half-and-half or evaporated milk 1/8 teaspoon pepper 2 egg yolks Optional garnishes (bacon bits, minced pars ley, grated cheeese)

Peel and cut up potatoes. Boil in salted water for about 10 minutes. Slice, wash thoroughly, and chop fine only the white portion of the leeks, along with the onion.

Saute leeks and onion slowly in hot butter or margarine until light golden brown. Sprinkle with flour and stir until flour is absorbed. Add enough of the potato cooking water to make a thin sauce, then turn sauce back into potatoes, stirring until well blended. Continue cooking until potatoes are soft enough to be pureed in a blender or food processor.

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