Leeks are cousins of asparagus, both part of the lilly family, and they are one of the oldest cultivated vegetables. The vegetable is mentioned many times in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists, and Theophrastos gives a detailed account of their proper cultivation. Among other things, the ancient Greeks believed them to be an antidote to nosebleeds. They were among the foods rationed to the slaves who built the Pyramids, and one of the vegetables known to the Israelites. There is evidence of the leek in ancient Egypt as long ago as the beginning of the Bronze Age. Pliny tells us that the best leeks were those from Egypt. Nero supposedly ate leeks to improve his voice.
In Greek cookery, leeks are predominant in the north, from Epirus to Macedonia and Thrace, especially as an ingredient in savory pies. In his book <<The traditional Pies of Epirus>>, Andreas Stefopoulos lists at least four versions of leek pie in the region. Most are variations of the same basic ingredients (leeks, eggs, feta, and olive oil) with the differences being mainly in the way the phyllo and filling are layered. One of the most interesting leek pies from Epirus is the “pispilita,” made with leeks and other winter greens but topped with a kind of crumb crust made of cornmeal. There is an interesting leek and lettuce pie, a tradition among Northern Greek Jews, as well as a leek pie made with minced meat, nutmeg and dill, which is Pontian.
Besides their role in savory pies, leeks appear in a slew of other dishes from the north of Greece, too. There are dozens of variations of meat and leek stews, and one of the most common dishes pretty much everywhere north of Larissa is leek, celery and pork stew served with egg and lemon sauce. The Greeks from around the Black Sea stew leeks together with beef and prunes, and also make a pungent “salad” of braised leeks with garlic and vinegar. Of all the leek dishes from the North, though, the most unusual are the “fisekia,” named for the cylindrical shell of a rifle or cannon, with which some imaginative cook of yore must have noticed a resemblance. Fisekia are leeks stuffed with rice, minced meat, and herbs. In the Middle East there is a similar stuffed-leek dish, but served in a sauce flavored with tamarind.
Leeks are one of best treats of winter. Wash them carefully as sand and dirt are often lodged between their layers, and use them generously in soups and stews and even winter salads.