Leeks can be delicate and exciting.
It’s easy to think of the leek as a slightly boring vegetable, a little old-fashioned even. It is perhaps considered a little too unrefined in flavour to take on anything more than a supporting role, to flavour stocks, soups or perhaps a sauce.
The Romans knew better. They considered the leek to be among the finest of vegetables, well above its siblings onion and garlic, which were left for commoners to consume. The emperor Nero ate so much of it people would call him Porrophagus. Leek eater. Apparently, the emperor believed the leek to be beneficial to his singing voice, one of his most treasured attributes, though historical texts from the Roman era give a number of uses for the leek as an important part of Roman feasts.
This dish is not Roman. Its inspiration comes from further north, a now closed Norwegian restaurant called Ylajali. Famous for its New Nordic cuisine, one of the restaurant’s celebrated dishes was burnt leek (Andreas Viestad has the recipe (in Norwegian)). This is not it, but it was reading about this dish that made me think of preparing a light dish, a meze perhaps, with leeks, baked until completely soft, front and centre.
The supporting flavours have more of a Turkish flair, the yoghurt balancing the intensity and slighty sweetness of the leek with some tangy and creamy notes, the dill providing a fresh element and the walnuts some welcome crunch. And, of course, the charring of the leeks add slightly smoky undertones. Together, they create that little explosion of flavour you are looking for in each bite of a meze dish. Yum!
Middle Eastern leeks are a different variety than those grown in Europe, the latter being larger and with thicker leaves. The taste, however, is much the same. Naturally, I’ve used Middle Eastern leeks as they are what’s available at my local market in Istanbul. In the directions, I’ve indicated potentially longer times for the larger variety, but do let your own senses overrule any timings in the directions. The leeks should be baked until completely soft and almost buttery in texture, and it should slice easily with a regular table knife, so don’t worry about leaving it for another few minutes if you’re not sure it’s quite there yet.
Leeks prepared this way can be served as a starter or as part of a meze spread, though it would also be delicious alongside fish. Serves 4-6, depending on what else is on offer.
Charred leeks with dill yoghurt and walnuts
- 3 leeks
- 1/2 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed to a paste with a little salt
- 150 ml yoghurt
- 1.5 tbsp finely chopped fresh dill
- a little lemon juice (if needed)
- 8 walnut halves, toasted and roughly chopped
- sunflower oil, for brushing the leeks and oven dish
- salt and pepper
- Preheat the oven to 180 C.
- Cut off the root and the dark green portion of the leeks. Slice what’s left (i.e. the white and light green parts) in half lengthways. Rinse any impurities and pat dry. Slice the halves in two or three crossways.
- Set a griddle pan over high heat. Brush the leeks with sunflower oil. When the griddle pan is very hot, fry until nicely charred, 3-4 minutes on each side. If you don’t have a griddle pan you may skip this, or fry in a regular pan for about a minute a side. The point here is not to cook or burn the leek, only to add a slightly smoky flavour.
- Remove the leeks to an oven dish brushed with sunflower oil. Season and cover with foil or a lid. Roast until the leeks are completely soft, anything from 45 minutes to well over an hour, depending on the size of your leeks and how much they cooked in the griddle pan. If your leek is very large, you may very well need half an hour.
- While the leeks are roasting, prepare dill yoghurt by mixing the crushed garlic, yoghurt and dill. Season and, if your yoghurt is very creamy, add a few drops of lemon juice to make it ever so slightly tangy.
- Remove the leeks to a serving plate. Top with the yoghurt and nuts, I usually make stripes. The dish is best eaten warm (but not hot), but may also be served at room temperature.