I met my first leek in high school. I was a senior and the leek was in Julia Child’s Vichyssoise. I wanted to be an instant convert, but it just wasn’t happening for me. Potatoes, these funny sci-fi onions, cream, the cold temperature–it was just too far off the map. Three years later I gave leeks another try. This time I was a student in Switzerland and the leeks were baked in a gratin with cream and Gruyère. Whammo! Direct hit. The Swiss also love potato-leek soup, hot and cold, so I got plenty of opportunity to endear myself to this long allium. As a young householder I braised them with chicken stock and cream, while Jody has always been a bit more restrained, using evoo. As I get older I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to Jody’s side of the fence, ergo this week’s post, Braised Leeks with Meyer Lemon, Pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano.*
The thing about leeks is that you really shouldn’t bother cooking them unless you take the trouble to clean them. Nothing spoils the gustatory epiphany of a caramelized leek faster than a spray of grit between the molars. When preparing leeks for chopping or slicing, trim the roots and tough green section, peel away any bruised or trashed outer layer, then slice or chop the remainder. Swirl these pieces in a couple of changes of cold water in a salad spinner, allowing the grit to settle to the bottom for a few second between each change. When baking or braising whole leeks (semi-whole, actually), as in this recipe, trim the roots as close to the bulb as possible without cutting the bulb itself (look at the photos below). That way the leaves remain attached to the bulb. Slice the leek lengthwise then one at a time immerse the leek halves in the spinner or a bowl filled with cold water. Grip the base tightly with one hand as you splay the leaves with the other, swirling the leek in the water to rinse away the grit that hides between the leaves down near the base where they attach. Treat the leek gently. It won’t escape if your grip is loose, but the bulb might split as you spread the leaves.
Leeks love fat of any kind, and if you want to give yourself a treat, slowly roast a handful, split lengthwise, in the same pan as a chicken, with the chicken resting on a flat rack only an inch above them so the fat drips onto the leeks as as the chicken cooks. You’ll thank me. We had this week’s version for my birthday dinner this past week, along with grilled lamb chops, a combination made for, well, birthdays. I’ve been enjoying the leftovers as a component in grilled cheese sandwiches with buckwheat-walnut bread. But that’s another story. Enjoy. Ken
*In our book we have a recipe with similar flavors but a much fancier presentation (we wrap the leeks in pancetta) and, of necessity, a more complicated cooking technique.
BRAISED LEEKS WITH MEYER LEMON, PANCETTA AND PARMIGIANO REGGIANO
Makes 8 servings
- 4 large leeks, with white part at least 6 inches long
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 ounces pancetta, cut into ¼-inch dice
- 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- Zest and juice of 1 Meyer lemon or a small regular lemon
- 1 bay leaf
- 4 sprigs thyme
- 1 tablespoon rinsed capers
- ¼ cup chopped curly parsley. Save the stems for cooking the leeks.
- 1 ounce Parmigiano Reggiano cheese shavings
- Trim the stringy roots off each leek, but leave the base intact, so the leaves hold together. Cut off the green tops and any tough outer leaves. Slice each leek in half lengthwise. Holding the root ends tightly, swish each half in a bowl of water, spreading the leaves. Then run under water to dislodge any remaining sand or grit. Shake off excess water and then pat dry with a towel.
- Season the leeks with salt and pepper.
- Heat half the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the leeks, cut side down, and sear until lightly browned, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate.
- Reduce the heat to low and allow the pan to cool down. Add the remaining oil, pancetta and garlic to the pan and cook 2 minutes or until the garlic is tender. Return the leeks to the pan with the lemon zest and juice, bay leaf, thyme sprig and capers. If you’ve saved the parsley stems, add them as well. Add ½ cup water and reduce the heat to low. Cover with a round of parchment and cook until the leeks are tender and fall away when poked with a sharp knife, 20-30 minutes. The length of time will depend on their size and how fast they are cooking.
- Transfer the leeks to a plate. Remove the bay leaf and thyme sprig–and parsley stems, if you used them. Reduce if the sauce is too watery. Stir in the parsley. Pour over the leeks. Garnish with cheese shavings and serve with crusty bread.
When I tucked into a plate of these leeks with a piece of crusty bread after we finished blogging for the day, I said, “This is my kind of food.” Fatty, salty, acidic, sweet, and packed with umami–olive oil, capers, the mysterious citrus flavor of Meyer lemons, garlic, pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano–all to serve the leek. We think of members of the onion family as accent rather than main event, but the French know how to put them center stage. Braised leeks somehow manage to come across as both sturdy and silky. They hold their own in terms of flavor, but they’re very happy to shake hands with other assertive players. If you took a classic French leek vinaigrette and sent it off on vacation for three weeks in Italy, you might end up with this dish.