Leeks, or prasa in Ladino, are one of the essential ingredients in Sephardic cuisine, playing flavorful parts in keftes (patties), meatballs, soups, salads and vegetable-egg dishes such frittatas and quajados. And leeks have a long history among Jews, dating back to Biblical times when the Israelites, wandering in the dessert and tired of eating manna, longed for the leeks, along with garlic and onions, that they ate in Egypt, which makes leeks a perfect symbolic food for the Passover seder.
For me, prasa kon tomat is one of the leek dishes always on my holiday table. I developed my written recipe for this dish, like so many recipes that have been passed from generation to generation of cooks, from the way I saw my cousin Dora, daughter of my grandfather’s brother and my father prepare it. Even though they each had learned from their mothers in different countries, Dora in Cuba and my father in New York, the look and taste of the dish was remarkably the same. The basis of Sephardic tomato-based dishes such as this is a sofrito, which cooks the tomato with olive oil and garlic to intensify the flavors. Prepare this adaptable dish in advance so the flavors can blend for a day or two, then serve it hot, cold or at room temperature. It’s perfect as part of a mezze (assortment of appetizers) or a side dish on its own or over rice, quinoa or pasta.
Note: To create a sweet and sour version, eliminate the garlic and add 1 tablespoon brown sugar with the lemon juice
- 4 large or 6 medium leeks (about 2 1/2 -3 pounds)
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 14.5-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes or 5-6 over-ripe fresh tomatoes, seeded and roughly chopped, reserving juice
- 3-4 cloves garlic, crushed or grated
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- To clean the leeks, cut off the darkest green tops and root bottom. Use the inside layers of the dark green tops, saving the rest to make stock. Peel off the 1 or 2 tough outer layers of the white and light green stalk. If it’s a thick stalk, cut it in half the long way before slice it into thin rounds. Put the pieces in a colander or strainer and wash under cold water, separating and moving the pieces around with your fingers. If there is still dirt left on the leek, set the strainer or colander in a bowl of cool water deep enough to cover all the leeks and swish the pieces again with your hand. Wait a few minutes for any dirt to settle, then lift out the colander or strainer and wash under cool running water. Repeat if necessary until the leek pieces are clean of dirt and grit. Set aside to drain.
- To make the sofrito, heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. When just hot, carefully add the tomatoes (without any of the sauce if using canned or clear juice if fresh). Watch out for splattering oil as the wet tomatoes hit the oil. Mash tomatoes roughly with your hands as you add them and with a wooden spoon once in the pot. Stir and simmer for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and simmer for another 5 minutes.
- Mix in the leeks and juice from the canned or fresh tomatoes. Turn the heat down to medium low and simmer the mixture, covered, for about 1 hour until the leeks very soft and the flavors well blended. Add the lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Stir and simmer 10 to 15 minutes more, covered to preserve the liquid or uncovered to concentrate it. The dish will keep 5 to 7 days refrigerated in a tightly covered container. It also freezes well. Defrost, re-heating if desired, and serve.