A part of the Allium family, which also includes onions and garlic, leeks (prasa, πράσα, in Greek) are native to the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean region. The hardy crop has been widely used since at least the second millennium B.C., first by the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians and later by the Greeks and the Romans, who spread it across Europe.
Nutrient dense, leeks are rich in vitamins and minerals. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates recommended the vegetable for the proper functioning of the urinary system and as a treatment for excessive swelling (it had additional medicinal uses in ancient times, including as a remedy to strengthen the throat and voice).
With its long history in the region, the humble leek features prominently in the Greek cuisine. You’ll often find it as a trusty sidekick, commonly used in place of or combined with onion to enhance a dish’s flavor and add an earthy sweetness. It makes its way into all kinds of soups, and it tastes great with pulses like beans and lentils.
We also cook leeks with rice (prasorizo), similar in execution to spinach rice, bake them, or cook them in olive oil (ladera), with a light tomato sauce, lemon or even a hearty avgolemono. Prasoselino (πρασοσέληνο), leeks cooked with celery root in olive oil and lemon, is a common winter recipe in Greek monastery cuisine, and prasopita, leek pie, is popular across the country (leeks are also commonly added to many other pies like spanakopita, spinach pie, or hortopita, mixed greens pie, for a touch sweetness).
The vegetable is also cooked with meat or fish in traditional Greek dishes, as a secondary ingredient but also, at times, as the protagonist. Leeks with pork or beef are hearty winter dishes, and you’ll often find them prepared with hake or salt cod in various ways: baked, in a kind of stew or in a casserole. Like the eastern Cretan dish called bakaliaros kentane (μπακαλιάρος κεντανέ), a delicious casserole made with leeks, potatoes and salt cod in a lemony sauce.
I love to cook with leeks, as I find their divine sweetness so comforting. Although they taste great with many ingredients, I prefer to focus on them once in a while, especially when I’m eating less meat and looking to create interesting mains made with simple, seasonal vegetables.
This is my version of prasa ladera (leeks cooked in olive oil). I add other vegetables to amp up the taste and a couple of potatoes to make it more filling. Like so many other Greek dishes, the use of herbs is crucial – here I am using celery fronds (or Chinese celery) – as is plenty of fresh lemon juice. I typically pair it with fresh, warm bread and feta for a hearty vegetarian meal, but it’s so versatile that you can enjoy it in a number of ways: You can keep it vegan by skipping the cheese; you can serve it with steamed rice or pasta; you can combine or serve it with eggs; you can have it as a side for grilled meats, poultry or fish; or you can even use it in salads, sandwiches, tacos and all sort of wraps.
Recipe: Prasa Ladera
For 4 servings
1 kg leeks sliced into 1-inch rounds
2 small onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 bay leaf
3 carrots, diced
2 small potatoes, peeled and diced
1 sweet red pepper, diced
1 sweet green pepper, diced
½ cup chopped celery fronds or Chinese celery leaves
2 tbsp + 50 ml olive oil
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup water or vegetable stock
½ tsp ground coriander seeds
¼ tsp chili powder (optional)
50 ml lemon juice (or more according to taste)
Salt and black pepper to taste
Put a large casserole dish on medium high heat. Add 2 tbsp olive oil and sauté the onions until glossy and translucent. Add in the leeks and bay leaf, and season with salt (this will help them lose most of their fluid). Stir gently until they go soft and most of the liquid is evaporated. Add in the carrots, potatoes, peppers and garlic and ground coriander, and stir for about a minute. Pour in the wine, stir and add in the water or vegetable stock. Bring the heat down to medium low, season with salt, black pepper and the chili powder, if using. Cover and gently simmer for about 15-20 minutes, until the potatoes and carrots are done and most of the liquid is absorbed (you may need to keep it simmering uncovered for about 5 minutes if there’s still too much liquid).
Add in the chopped celery fronds and 50 ml of olive oil, stir gently, adjust seasoning if necessary, cover and let simmer at low heat for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in the lemon juice. Let it stand for 5-10 minutes and serve.
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