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The Goldberg variations: leeks

leek fritters

So it's not really the Goldberg variations, of course,  isn't music, it's food; a Sephardi Jewish riff on the traditional potato latke.

We’re switching from the grand old man of vegetables, the potato, universal, stalwart, doing the heavy lifting in dish after dish, to  the sweet, light, more fashionable relative of the onion - the leek. But we are still making vegetable fritters, so the result is not radically different. A variation, not a revolution. 

This is a traditional dish in Jewish communities across the Mediterranean, for Greeks and Turks, and also Bulgarian Jews, especially at Passover. Then matza meal is used, instead of breadcrumbs. Both work equally well. 

Grandma Rosa was born in Greece just before World War Two, and this is her recipe. For Rosa, the war meant separation. Rosa was 5 years old when her desperate mother put her, along with brother and sister, on a boat to Palestine. It was towards the end of the war in 1944. The family were being hidden by Partisans and had reached the stage of eating grass. Rosa's mother wanted to save her children. Everyone did survive, but they didn't see their parents again for  9 years. When they finally met in Israel in 1953, Rosa was 14. She couldn't speak to her mother as she had forgotten Greek in the process of learning Hebrew. Rosa learnt Greek along with her mother’s Greek recipes, which she cooks to this day.

 Rosa Bagdadli making leek fritters with her daughter Iris 

Rosa Bagdadli making leek fritters with her daughter Iris 

leek fritters recipe

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 large leeks, around 500 g, white part with only a little of the green
  • 2 eggs
  • Breadcrumbs / matza meal - 1/2 cup, though you may need more
  • Salt and pepper, ½ teaspoon each
  • optional: add spices, including 1 red chilli, de-seeded and sliced; 2 handfuls parsley, finely chopped; 1 teaspoon each ground cumin and coriander; 1/2 teaspoon each ground turmeric and cinnamon 

METHOD

1.     Chop the leeks finely by hand. Rosa insists it doesn't work as well if you do it in the machine. Put chopped leeks in a pot, with water to cover. Boil for 20- 25 minutes. Remove, cool and drain well, using your hands or a spoon to squeeze it out. 

2.     Add the eggs, salt and pepper and mix. Add spices, if using. 

3.      Add breadcrumbs, till your mix is the consistency of dough. Stop there!  Don’t keep adding any more if you feel it’s dry enough.

4.     Form small patties, fry in deep oil. Some Sephardic families make them diamond shaped. Grandma Rosa makes round patties. 

5.    Drain on paper napkins. Best warm, although they are also good the next day. If there are any left.

fine cuts

For latkes, the potato had to be grated. In this recipe, the leek has to be cooked first. Grandma Rosa boils hers. Other recipes fry the leeks, but it’s oily – and tasty! – enough without. The double frying really is unnecessary. The boiling brings out the leeks’ sweetness too, and removes any sharpness, so boiling it is. 

Now that we've cleared that up, the next question is: spices or no spices? Grandma Rosa likes it plain, just salt and pepper livening up the fried sweet, peppery leeks. I’ve made it twice, once plain and once spiced up, and both versions were delicious.

spices

I like spices, alright, yes, addicted to chilli, so I chopped in a chilli, some parsley and other spices that Uber-Vegetable chef Yotam Ottolenghi recommends, in his book Plenty and also here in his column in the Guardian.

But Ottolenghi is a double fryer, so I definitely left that step out! He also adds sugar, and I left that out as well. I don’t add extra sugar to many things, and certainly not to something as naturally sweet as boiled leeks.

Where Ottolenghi does veer away from Grandma Rosa is in adding baking powder, milk and a beaten egg white to his mix – more work, more dishes to clean, but it does produces a lighter result. It also absorbs more oil, for some reason, so in the end, I would follow Grandma Rosa’s recipe, and add spices if you are so inclined.

Next time, I will try adding grated ginger, soy sauce and rice vinegar to the mix.

That's the picture from Jerusalem. In Melbourne, one of our tests cooks, graphic designer, mother of four and all round superwoman, Amanda, made a gluten free version. Amanda added a potato to the potfull of leeks going into her mix. She used quinoa flakes instead of matza meal or breadcrumbs, and she baked instead of frying.

Amanda brushed her fritters with olive oil before putting them into a hot oven, 200 degrees. They baked for 1 hour 15 mins, till they were crispy outside. As with the potato latkes, baking takes longer than frying… but then it is all done in one go and you don’t have to stand and fry, so it leaves you free to do other things. Swings and roundabouts, it depends which taste/style you prefer. 

CARB-FREE VERSION

Replace the breadcrumbs or quinoa flakes with 1/2 cup of almond meal - or more if you see your mixture is too liquid. 

conclusion

Amanda's a convert. She says the first thing that struck her was the smell, and the second was that her boys gobbled them up.

Fried, baked, or gluten free, this recipe is a winner!

TO SERVE

yoghurt sauce 

Fold 1 chopped garlic clove and 1/2 heaped teaspoon salt through 1 cup Greek yoghurt. If you want to take out the food processor again, add 1 handful parsley and 1 handful coriander to the garlic, salt and yoghurt, for a green sauce. You can also add lemon or lime juice. 

silken tofu sauce

In a food processor, beat 200 g silken tofu with 4 cloves roasted garlic, 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Taste, and when you are satisfied, put in the fridge to firm up.

wasabi sauce

Fold 2 tablespoons wasabi oil, 2 tablespoons sweet chili sauce, and some chopped pickled ginger through 3/4 cup wasabi mayonaise.


Next week: zucchini and carrot fritters.