Why It Works
- Leeks are cut in half lengthwise so they form neat, simple serving portions that are easy to handle.
- Splitting the leeks lets you wash out any sand or grit that might be hiding between the layers.
- For enhanced sweetness, the leeks are browned cut side down before the addition of braising liquid.
- Butter adds richness to the sauce while rounding out the tart lemon flavor.
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, autumn 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 a chewy 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 close to 200°F (93°C), depending on how low your oven can reliably go (home ovens are notoriously bad at maintaining an even, set temperature, which can be a problem at such low temps—drop a little too much below the target and you'll hardly be cooking at all). Such 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, can be cooked much hotter and quicker to break down the pectin that holds the vegetable cells together without worry about liquid loss and over-drying. Leeks braised in a 325°F (163°C) oven in simmering liquid will cook in 30 minutes or less, rather than the hours it can take meat to gently braise.
When cut in half lengthwise, leeks 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, for more even browning. Even though only that cut surface will acquire any color, it's all good—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 glistening while the leeks cook and will add richness to the sauce the leeks and stock form as they slowly braise in the oven.
You can get all fancy if you want and transfer the braised leeks to a fancy 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.
This recipe was re-tested in 2022 and edited to reduce the quantity of leeks called for, along with a few other minor adjustments.
8 large leeks (about 10 ounces/283g each)
2 tablespoons (30ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup (118ml) dry white wine
1 cup (237ml) homemade chicken stock or low-sodium broth (see note)
2 tablespoons (30g) unsalted butter, cubed
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves and tender stems
2 teaspoons (10ml) juice and 2 teaspoons zest from 1 lemon
Trim leeks to remove root ends, tough or damaged outer layers, and dark green top parts; reserve trimmings for stock if desired. Cut leeks in half lengthwise, then rinse each leek half under cold, running water, gently fanning layers open while being careful to keep leek halves intact, to wash away any sand or grit. Pat dry.
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. Working in 2 batches, add as many leeks as you can fit in a single layer cut side down. Cook, pressing down gently with a spatula and shaking occasionally, until well browned, about 3 minutes. Transfer leeks to a 9- by 13-inch baking dish, arranging them in a single layer, cut-side up. Repeat with remaining leeks until all leeks are browned.
Pour wine and chicken broth into the skillet; bring to a simmer. Sprinkle leeks all over with salt and pepper, dot with butter, and then pour hot wine and broth mixture on top. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue to cook until leeks are completely tender and translucent, about 20 to 30 minutes longer, depending on thickness of the leeks.
Using a slotted spatula, carefully transfer leeks to a serving platter. Season lightly with salt. Transfer pan juices to a small saucepan (you should have about 1/2 cup). Bring to a simmer over high heat and cook until sauce is emulsified and reduced to about 1/4 cup, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in parsley, lemon juice, and lemon zest, and season with salt and pepper. Pour braising sauce over leeks and serve, drizzling with extra olive oil if desired.
12-inch heavy-bottom skillet, 9- by 13-inch baking dish
Because of the simplicity of this recipe, homemade chicken stock will give you more depth of flavor, as well as natural gelatin that will improve the body of the sauce. That said, this recipe is also delicious with good-quality, store-bought stock.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 9g||11%|
|Saturated Fat 3g||13%|
|Total Carbohydrate 17g||6%|
|Dietary Fiber 2g||8%|
|Total Sugars 5g|
|Vitamin C 12mg||60%|
|*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.|