Why It Works
- Leeks are cut in half lengthwise so they form neat, simple serving portions that look pretty on a dish and are easy to handle in the pan.
- Splitting them also lets you wash out any sand or grit that might be hiding out between the layers.
- To heighten their sweetness, the leeks are caramelized cut side down in hot oil before the addition of braising liquid.
- Butter keeps things lubricated while the leeks cook and adds richness to the sauce.
Birthday meals can be fancy. Christmas dinner? Sure—multi-course it up. Break out the truffles, foie, and suckling pig. But Thanksgiving dinner? It's all about simple, inexpensive ingredients treated right. Fall vegetables don't have the splash of summer vegetables or nice big winter roasts, but what they lack in showmanship they make up for in comfort.
Take leeks, for example. They're the archetypal wingman. They disappear into stews and soups and gently flavor sautéed vegetables. They melt into sauces and hide out in stir-fries. I mean, they even play second fiddle to potatoes, for God's sake. That's potato-leek soup, not leek-potato soup.
Well, Mr. Leek, November is your time to shine.
Unlike onions with their pronounced sweetness and pungent aroma, leeks are a far milder vegetable. My favorite way to cook them as the main ingredient in a dish is to braise them. They retain their subtle aroma but acquire a completely tender, almost meaty texture as they slowly break down and absorb liquid.
Braising is a slow cooking process that is primarily used for relatively tough cuts of meat with a high amount of connective tissue like say, short ribs or chicken thighs. You brown them first in hot fat, then cook them slowly in a moist environment partially covered with liquid. The idea is that over time, the tough connective tissue will break down into rich, smooth gelatin, turning the tough cut tender and creating a rich jus to serve with it at the same time.
The same process can be used for vegetables, the main differences being temperature and timing. With meats, it's ideal to keep them in the 160 to 180°F (71 to 82°C) temperature range. These relatively low temperatures prevent muscle fibers from tightening too much, helping the meat to retain more juiciness while simultaneously allowing connective tissue to break down.
Vegetables, on the other hand, must be cooked much hotter. Pectin, the structural cement that holds together vegetable cells doesn't begin to break down until 183°F (84°C), after which point, it breaks down fairly rapidly. Leeks braised in a simmering liquid will cook in 30 minutes or less, rather than the hours it takes meat to braise.
Cut them in half lengthwise, and they form neat, simple serving portions that look pretty on a dish and are easy to handle in the pan. Splitting them also lets you rinse them—necessary to wash out any sand or grit that might be hiding out between the layers.
To heighten their sweetness a bit, it's best to caramelize their cut surfaces in hot oil before adding your liquid. Why the cut surface? Because it's easier to lay them flat that way. Even though only the edges will acquire any color, everything's cool—those wonderful browned compounds are water-soluble, which means that after you add your liquid, many of them will dissolve and spread throughout the dish.
You can use any type of liquid you'd like, but I like to use a combination of white wine and chicken or turkey broth, along with a few nuggets of good butter. The butter keeps things lubricated while the leeks cook and will add richness to the sauce the leeks and stock form as it slowly cooks in the oven.
You can get all fancy if you want and transfer the braised leeks to a pretty serving platter, but with this kind of food, I'm perfectly happy with a handful of roughly chopped parsley, a sprinkle of lemon juice and zest, and some really good olive oil.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
12 to 16 large leeks, white and light green parts only, rinsed, split in half lengthwise
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
2 teaspoons juice and 2 teaspoons zest from one lemon
Preheat oven to 325°F (160°C) and adjust oven rack to middle position. Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add as many leeks as you can fit in a single layer cut side down. Cook, shaking occasionally until golden brown.
Transfer leeks, cut-side up to a 13- by 9-inch baking dish. Repeat with remaining leeks until all leeks are browned. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add wine and broth. Dot with butter. Cover with aluminum foil and bake in oven for 20 minutes. Remove foil and continue to cook until leeks are completely tender and translucent, about 10 minutes longer.
Using a slotted spatula, carefully transfer leeks to a serving platter. Transfer pan juices to a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over high heat and cook until reduced to an emulsified sauce, about 5 minutes. Stir in parsley, lemon juice, and lemon zest, season with salt and pepper, pour over leeks, and serve, drizzling with extra olive oil if desired.
12-inch heavy-bottom skillet, 13-inch by 9-inch baking dish
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 8 to 10|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 7g||9%|
|Saturated Fat 2g||10%|
|Total Carbohydrate 16g||6%|
|Dietary Fiber 2g||7%|
|Total Sugars 4g|
|Vitamin C 11mg||54%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|