The more food writing you read, the more you see the same templates repeated over and over, with each cook tweaking a little bit here and there to make it their own. In “Who made it better?” we’ll take a closer look, making snap judgments about three cooks through their take on a particular oft-repeated recipe. First up are leek fritters (or “keftes de prasa”), a traditional food of Sephardic Jewish tradition that’s been covered by Yotam Ottolenghi, Deb Perelman and Michael Solomonov among others.
At its base, this is a simple appetizer that allows the enterprising cook to play with a number of elements. You need a base of leeks, but do you add any other onions (most do), or other flavorings? The leeks must be pre-cooked before the patties are formed, but how? What binding is used? And while all of the recipes I found included a dipping sauce, these differed dramatically in flavor and ingredients.
Fritas de Prasa, from Zahav by Michael Solomonov
I didn’t grow up with leek patties, but to me this seemed like the most standard, traditional recipe. The leeks are pan-fried with garlic, then combined with egg, mashed potato and bread crumbs. I wasn’t in love with this – as much as I tried to keep the leeks from browning, they developed a slightly bitter edge and with no other seasoning except salt, there was nothing to temper it. I made the agristada to accompany them, which Solomonov describes as “like a lemon mayonnaise / savory lemon curd.” The cooking process for this was interesting and educational, and probably traditional, but ultimately double-boiling egg yolks seemed unnecessary in a world where dairy binders like sour cream and yogurt are so easily available. The part that tripped me up though was the timing between the two elements – the agristada says “serve immediately,” which makes sense because of the lightly-cooked eggs, but the fritters are meant to be served hot out of the pan. You can’t do both at the same time. Looking back, the answer seems to be to make the leek batter, then the sauce, then fry the fritters, but somehow that was less obvious to me while I was cooking – isn’t that always the case…
Leek Fritters with Garlic and Lemon, from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman
If you want a pure and unadulterated taste of the allium family, this fritter is for you. Unlike the other recipes, Perelman boils her leeks and then adds raw shallots to the batter. It’s a great trick for a deep vegetal flavor. She also leaves hers in a warm oven for a few minutes after frying to make sure they get cooked all the way through – which alleviates any anxiety that the outsides will burn before the insides cook. The sour cream-based sauce came together almost instantly, but it was almost too simple and raw, and a little jarring next to the fritters. All in all these just seemed a little abstemious for fried vegetables.
Leek Fritters, from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi
These were the favorites, although they lost the deep leeky quality of the Smitten Kitchen versions and thus were somewhat controversial. There’s a lot going on here – sautéed leeks and shallots, fresh herbs, a chile pepper, a battery of spices – but they come together with that perfect kick that Ottolenghi is so good at. It’s a long ingredient list, but as he points out in the headnote, most of them are items you should already have in your pantry (at least if you’re cooking from his books often). He’s also the only one to think about lightening, using baking powder and whipped egg white for a lift. The milk and butter added moisture and richness - one fritter per person went a long way. I hate parsley and cilantro but gamely made the sauce to be pedantic, and it really surprised me – the mix of sour cream and yogurt tamed the herbs’ bitter soapiness. It was the only sauce I repurposed onto a salad later in the week. You win this time, Parsley.
Ottoleghi's Leek Fritters
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1/2 cup sour cream
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tbsp lemon juice
3 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup parsley leaves, chopped
2 cups cilantro leaves, chopped
3 leeks (1 lb in total, trimmed weight)
5 shallots, finely chopped
2/3 cup olive oil
1 fresh red chile, seeded and sliced
1/2 cup parsley (leaves and fine stalks), finely chopped
3/4 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg white
3/4 cup plus 1 tbsp self-rising flour (make your own)
1 tbsp baking powder
2/3 cup milk
4 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
To make the sauce: Blitz all the ingredients together in a food processor until a uniform green. Set aside for later.
Cut the leeks into scant one-inch-thick slices; rinse and drain dry. Saute the leeks and shallots in a pan with half the oil on medium heat for about 15 minutes, or until soft. Transfer to a large bowl and add the chile, parsley, spices, sugar and salt. Allow to cool down.
Whisk the egg white to soft peaks and fold it into the vegetables. In another bowl mix together the flour, baking powder, whole egg, milk and butter to form a batter. Gently mix it into the egg white and vegetable mixture.
Put two tablespoons of the remaining oil in a large frying pan and place over a medium heat. Spoon about half of the vegetable mixture into the pan to make four large fritters. Fry them for two to three minutes on each side, or until golden and crisp. Remove to paper towels and keep warm.Continue making the fritters, adding more oil as needed. You should end up with about right large fritters. Serve warm, with the sauce on the side or drizzled over.