melty leeks, cooked 2 ways
Pardon my late arrival to the Knowing Things About Leeks party, but I just found out that they have not one but two harvesting seasons – one each in summer and winter. The summer harvest yields a milder leek with a skinnier stalk, while the winter harvest gives us those great big fat ones that look like tropical plants straight out of the backyard of some midcentury home in LA. Right now in early December we’re approaching their January peak, which is very helpful in explaining why I can’t seem to make it home from the grocery store without one in my bag.
I found this worth noting because trying vegetables when they’re in season is probably the second most impactful change I made to expand my food horizons from basically carbs + salad only, to craving all the veggies all the time. (Though I feel compelled to also point out here that yes I will make a raspberry cake in the dead of winter with insanely overpriced berries if I’m craving one.) The only thing more influential was figuring out what preparations showed off the things I loved most about each vegetable and then making them that way myself.
The two recipes you see here encapsulate both of those elements and apply them to one of my favorite members of the onion fam. They’re similar because both cooking methods, confit and braise, highlight what I enjoy most about leeks – the way they transform from squeaky, humble stalks full of dirt into silken, melty strands of decadence. The resulting texture of both methods is pretty similar. The main differences lie in how and when you serve them – the first, on toast as an appetizer for your friends at the holiday dinner party I know you’ll be hosting if you haven’t already; the second, as a main course, whether warm alongside whatever meat you’re serving up, or cold as a bed for a 7-minute egg with a drizzle of sharp vinaigrette
I love them both ways, of course, but the braised leeks are by far my favorite. They come from Sunday Suppers at Lucques (which technically makes this post a Suzanne Goin double header #IAintSorry), and they were the very first thing I cooked from that book. I make them all year long and I always eat the entire pan by myself – first warm, then the leftovers cold – not because I have a sharing problem, but because my balder half has said he doesn’t care for the texture.
Which brings us to why I’m sharing these two recipes together. Despite his disinterest in the braised leeks, Cos ate a ton of these leek toasts when I served them at our holiday dinner party last weekend. Even the ones without the funky blue cheese, which notoriously dominates the flavor of everything it touches. This got me thinking about how a subtle tweak can result in a big change in taste, and really, that's part of what makes cooking so fun in the first place. Between these two recipes and the endless pairings and variations you could apply - serve cold or hot, with or without dressing, finish with sherry vinegar, use goat cheese or gorgonzola - there’s a way here for everyone to enjoy the magic of silky, melty leeks while they’re in season this winter.
3 big leeks, white and pale green parts sliced into thin half rings (about 3 generous cups of slices)
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus extra for brushing toasts
Freshly ground black pepper
1 baguette, or any bread that toasts well and can be thinly sliced
2 ounces blue cheese (or less), crumbled
a squeeze of lemon juice
Fill a large bowl with cold water. Add leeks and use your hands to pump them up and down in the water a bit, separating the rings and letting the dirt and grit fall to the bottom. You can also wash the already sliced leeks in a colander, just take care to rinse them very well and to remove them to a bowl by hand not by turning over the colander and dumping them out. (There might be dirt at the bottom.) Transfer to a dish or plate for a minute; no need to dry them.
Meanwhile, heat a large, heavy skillet over medium. Once hot, add butter and olive oil and once they’re fully melted and sizzling. Add the still wet leek slices, and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Give everything a good stir, then reduce heat to low, cover with a lid and cook leeks for 25 minutes, continuing to stir them occasionally. Adjust seasoning to taste.
While leeks cook, brush bread slices with olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt. Run under broiler until lightly toasted. Divide leeks among toasts and sprinkle with cheese and/or a squeeze of lemon juice to brighten them up (especially useful if you don't use blue cheese). Eat immediately or gently rewarm later. Leeks can be made up to 3 days in advance. Just rewarm in the microwave (or on the stove) before you put them on the toasts.
Suzanne Goin's Braised Leeks, from Sunday Suppers at Lucques
Yields 6 servings
6 large leeks
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
a scant 1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup sliced shallots
1 tbsp thyme leaves
1/2 cup dry white wine (can sub with marsala in a pinch)
1 1/2 to 2 cups chicken stock
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Peel any bruised outer layers from leeks. Trim roots, leaving root end intact. Trim off the darker green tops, leaving two inches of green. Cut in half lengthwise. Clean very well by soaking in them in a bowl of cold water, plunging the leeks down to be fully submerged every once in a while. Pat dry with towel.
With cut sides up, season with salt and black pepper.
Heat a large pan over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Pour in about a 1/4 cup oil and wait 1 minute. Place leeks, cut side down, in pan with crowding them. Make in two batches and use more oil, if necessary. Sear them 4 to 5 minutes, until golden brown. Season with salt and pepper and turn over to cook 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer them, cut side up, to a gratin dish.
Pour 1/4 cup oil into pan and heat over medium heat. Add shallots, thyme, 1/4 teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper. Cook about 5 minutes, until just beginning to color. Add wine and reduce by half. Add 1 1/2 cups stock and bring to a boil over high heat. Pour over leeks, without quite covering them.
Braise in oven 30 minutes, until tender. Allow leeks to rest for a couple before diving in.