Schales (pronounced SHAH-less) is a delightfully practical old-time dish well-known in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, but not much beyond that. In simplest terms it’s a vegetable pie without crust. Thus it offers vegetarians a new alternative in creative cooking, and for weight-watchers an ideal way to count calories with a broad range of low-fat options.
The name of the dish derives from the German word Schale, a shell or shallow bowl. Both words—shell and shallow—are English cognates of this German root. Thus the pie has assumed the name of the utensil in which it is cooked; much the same way French cassoulet (a baked bean dish) takes its name from the earthenware pot in which the food is prepared.
From an historical standpoint, Schales appears to be an extremely ancient dish, surviving almost intact from the days when the Roman Empire included parts of the modern German Rhineland. Most Germans today—at least those who know Schales—will tell you it is a potato dish because that is how it took shape in the 19th century peasant cookery of southwest Germany. However, the core ingredient has always been leeks, so leek lovers rejoice: Here’s a perfect way to make a flavorful meal with Baker Creek’s Bleu de Solaise, Carentan, and Giant Musselburgh leeks.
The original idea behind Schales was to make porridge and then bake it so that it would become finger food. Porridge in the oldest sense of the word consisted of vegetables cooked with leeks because the word porridge derives from Latin porrum, the common word for leeks. Most people today use the word porridge when they really mean gruel: the same thing made with grains. In any case, now that we have sorted that out, why not celebrate these ancient roots with a leek fest in your own kitchen?
The traditional Schales is held together with eggs, so in that sense it is a crustless egg-and-vegetable pie. If you imagine that this sounds a little bit like a quiche, you are spot on. Quiche derives from the German word Küche (cake or pie), and can thus be described as a deep-dish onion Schales. The main difference between the two is that Schales is indeed very flat like its distant cousin the pizza.
But let’s talk recipes, because cooking with heirlooms is the reason we grow them, and an excellent reason to create a leek bed in your kitchen garden. The really great thing about leeks, aside from their mild flavor, is that you can harvest them fall, winter, and spring: they are a real cornerstone of cold-weather cookery.
Once you master the basic structure of a Schales, you can branch out and create your own variations with whatever odds and ends you may have in the cold room or pantry. Just keep in mind that a Schales is broad and quite flat so you will need to choose a cake pan or baking dish that fits the bill, preferably something that is anywhere from 11 to 14 inches in diameter. Earthenware is the best choice because the mellow, radiant heat creates a delicious gold crust on the bottom.
William Woys Weaver is an internationally known food historian, author, and heirloom gardener living in Devon, Pennsylvania.