If you had to line up the Allium family members from mild to intense, it would go like this—chives, shallots, leeks, spring onions, garlic and onions.
Chives, with their delicate and mild flavour, are at one end of the spectrum, and onions, packing a raw wallop with their overpowering and pungent taste, on the other end. Leeks fall somewhere in the middle, with a sweeter and less intense flavour, making them a perfect addition to dishes like soups, stews and sauces where you don’t want an overpowering onion-y flavour.
Leeks, which look like spring onions that have been on an American fast food diet, have a rich history, as explained in The Oxford Companion To Food by Alan Davidson. Greeks and Romans of the classical era loved them. Emperor Nero was said to have consumed large quantities of leeks, believing it would improve his singing voice. This led to him being nicknamed “Porrophagus” (leek-eater). The Romans considered leeks to be far superior to onions and garlic, which they deemed common foods for the poor. In France, on the other hand, leeks are considered “poor man’s asparagus”.
One of the most popular dishes featuring leeks is the French leek and potato soup, also known as Potage Parmentier, named after Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a French agronomist who promoted the cultivation of potatoes in France. This thick and creamy soup is a meal in a bowl. Leeks are also a key ingredient in Welsh cawl, the national dish of Wales. It is a hearty stew made with meat, bacon, root vegetables, onions and leeks.
You can also take a gourmet approach with leeks. Burnt leeks are a technique in modern gastronomy where leeks are grilled on high heat until blackened on the outside, resulting in a bold and smoky flavour. To achieve this, chop off the darkest green leaves, which can be discarded or used to make stock. Place the leeks on a hot grill or open flame, moving them around to ensure they are charred uniformly. Serve by slicing open the leeks and topping them with melted butter or a dressing of your choice.
Leek ash is a flavourful and earthy powder that has a smoky aroma and intense savoury flavour. Leek greens are washed, dried and laid out on a baking tray, and baked until completely charred. This is ground to a fine powder to obtain leek ash. Leek ash can be dusted on the plate, added to bread or cracker dough, dusted on pizzas, used in risotto or used to make infused oils. The ash can also be mixed with regular salt to make a smoky leek flavoured salt.
When preparing leeks, it’s important to wash them well as mud and grit can often be found lodged in the centre. Chop off the darker green tops, slice off the root end, peel off any yellowing outer layers and slit the remaining part of the leaf vertically, exposing all the layers. Wash well under running water to ensure all grit and dirt is removed.
With their sweet and less intense flavour, leeks offer a unique and delicious addition to many dishes and their rich history and versatility make them an interesting ingredient to cook with.
(Inspired by the Sindhi koki, a flatbread made using onions)
1 large leek
3 tbsp ghee
2 cups atta
2-3 green chillies
3-4 tbsp chopped coriander leaves
1 tsp salt
Half tsp crushed black pepper
To cook: 1-2 tbsp ghee/oil
Cut off the darker green leaves and the root part of the leek. Slit vertically and wash well by running water in between the layers to get rid of all the sand. Slice thinly.
Rub the ghee into the atta. Add all the remaining ingredients and use just enough water to make a stiff dough. Divide into six-eight portions. Place a tava (griddle) to heat.
Flatten out each portion. Place one disc on the lightly greased hot tava and press down with a spatula. Turn over and repeat the process. Take this pressed-down disc, coat it with some flour and roll it out into a thick roti. Return this to the tava and cook both sides of the roti using a little ghee or oil until golden and crisp. Serve hot with papad or pickles.
LEEK AND POTATO SOUP
1 large leek
1 large onion
1 large potato
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
6-8 cloves garlic, sliced
500ml vegetable stock*
1 cup milk
2 tbsp spring onion greens or chives
Clean the leek as mentioned above and slice thinly.
Peel and slice the onion and potatoes. In a pot, heat the olive oil and butter. Add the sliced garlic and sauté on low flame for a minute. Do not brown the garlic.To this, add the sliced leeks and onions, along with a pinch of salt.
Sauté on a low flame for 10-12 minutes until well softened. Mix in the sliced potatoes and sauté for one-two minutes on medium flame.
Add the vegetable stock. Bring it to a boil. Reduce the flame, cover and simmer for 8-10 minutes until all the veggies are well cooked.
Once cooled, blend this to a smooth purée.
Return the purée to the pot and season with salt and pepper. Thin it with the required quantity of milk to get the desired consistency and simmer once again. Ladle into bowls and garnish with finely chopped spring onion greens or chives. Serve hot.
*Alternatively, dissolve a stock cube in 500ml hot water.
Note: The soup tends to thicken as it cools. Thin it down as required.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). @saffrontrail on Instagram and Twitter.