Sometimes the beauty of a holiday is its traditions, but sometimes it’s the way it leads you down unexpected culinary paths. March 1st has been, for hundreds of years, the most important Welsh holiday. Marking the day its patron saint died in 569–yes, wrap your heads around that date, America, you young whippersnapper–St. David’s Day has been celebrated since the Middle Ages. While you may imagine the Welsh, Scots, and English co-existing harmoniously on their little green island, the relationship between these different groups has long been, and in some cases still is, quite fractious. St. David, a Celtic monk, was recognized as Wales’ patron saint at the height of the Welsh resistance to the Norman invasion, and celebrations in the diaspora often led to non-Welsh neighbors’ burning effigies of the Welsh.
St. David’s personal symbol, one of the two official symbols of Wales, is the leek, an amazing and undervalued member of the onion family. You may remember that Kate Middleton included the Welsh leek along with the English rose and Scottish thistle in her wedding dress embroidery…no? Oh right: they decided for some reason to go with a daffodil, Wales’s less delicious symbol. A missed opportunity, we think.
The traditional Welsh dish served on St. David’s Day is the unfortunately named “cawl,” a simple root-vegetable soup. Cawl, which sounds more or less like what you might have eaten at a medieval monastery, didn’t kindle our creative appetites. (If you’re curious, you can find Jamie Oliver’s recipe here.) Thank goodness for us, there are reams of other possibilities for cooking with the delicious leek.
Whatever you’re making, you will want to make sure your leek-cleaning skills are up to snuff: the biggest pitfall with leeks is overlooking the mud and grit that collects between layers. If you’re using finely chopped leeks, you can place the pieces in a colander, set into a large bowl, and rinse them in a few changes of cold water, making sure no grit remains behind. Our favorite way to clean whole leeks is first, top them where the dark green leaves begin (most recipes suggesting discarding the darkest and toughest parts of the leek), then slice them lengthwise, leaving the root end intact. Under cold running water, gently fan the leeks open and rinse thoroughly between each layer. You may need to rub to remove mud. Be diligent! It’s disheartening to make a delicious leek dish only to crunch leftover grit between your teeth.
Leeks are incredibly versatile: they can star in soups, provide a savory side, or play a supporting role in a myriad of stews and braises. It took us about five seconds to agree on one of our favorite leek recipes, from the can’t-be-overrated Plenty, the blockbuster cookbook by the British-Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi. Both of us were early Ottolenghi converts and proselytizers: we instantly loved his intricate spicing, his global embrace of vegetables (his first big gig was, quite by chance, as the vegetarian columnist for the Guardian), and how he honors so many culinary traditions, from the Middle Eastern melting pot to Malaysia and beyond. His recipes can be both simple and complex, and these leek fritters are a bit of both: simple technique, complex spicing.
The fritters themselves aren’t much more difficult than potato pancakes, though they stand apart thanks to their assertive seasoning. You can skip the herb and yogurt sauce if you’re pressed for time, but don’t! You could always whip it up in the food processor ahead of time and let it mellow in the fridge while you make the fritters. These are a great introduction to Ottolenghi’s world if you don’t already know it–you can find all the ingredients in your local supermarket, yet they add up to a flavor that’s nothing short of transporting. It may not transport you to Wales, exactly, but we like to think St. David would have approved nonetheless.
Adapted from Ottolenghi’s Plenty
3-4 leeks, trimmed (about 1 lb total)
3 shallots, finely chopped
½ cup olive oil
½ cup parsley, chopped
1 red chile, seeded and sliced thin (optional)
¾ tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp turmeric
¼ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp sugar
½ tsp salt
1 egg white
¾ cup flour
1 tbsp baking powder
⅔ cup milk
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
For the sauce (optional):
1 cup of greek yogurt or sour cream, or ½ cup of each
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp olive oil
½ tsp salt
½ cup parsley, chopped
1 cup cilantro, chopped
Using the white part of the leek and a couple of inches of green, cut into ¼ inch thick slices. Rinse thoroughly in a colander and drain dry. Saute the leeks and shallots in a pan with ¼ cup of the olive oil on medium heat for about 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and add the parsley, chile (if using), spices, sugar and salt. Allow to cool.
Whisk the egg white thoroughly and fold into the leek mixture. In another bowl mix together the flour, baking powder, egg, milk and butter to form a batter. Gently mix it into the leek mixture.
Coat a large frying pan with olive oil and place over medium heat. Spoon a heaping tablespoon or two of the leek mixture into the pan, repeat, making sure to leave a couple of inches between each fritter, as they spread a bit. Fry them for 2 to 3 minutes on each side until golden brown and crisp. Remove to paper towels or a rack. Continue frying the fritters adding more oil to the pan as needed. Depending on the size, makes around 12-24 fritters. Serve warm with sauce and a squeeze of lemon on the side.
To make sauce, combine all the ingredients together in a food processor or blender. Blend until green or to desired consistency.