Braised Leeks with Meyer Lemon, Pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano

Braised Leeks with Meyer Lemon, Pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano -1

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 -3

BRAISED LEEKS WITH MEYER LEMON, PANCETTA AND PARMIGIANO REGGIANO

Makes 8 servings

Ingredients:

  • 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

Directions:

  1. 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.
  2. Season the leeks with salt and pepper.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Braised Leeks with Meyer Lemon, Pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano -4

The Meyer lemons we’ve been getting recently really are that orange. Weird.

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Braised Leeks with Meyer Lemon, Pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano -7

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Braised Leeks with Meyer Lemon, Pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano -51

Jody notes

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.

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64 thoughts

    • I should have written “more orange than they used to be.” These guys weren’t yellow-orange–they were just orange, which strikes me as a bit of a departure from Meyer lemons of previous years. Anyway, they still tasted good, which is more than I can say about the thick-skinned “Meyer lemons” that have sometimes put in a fraudulent appearance in the past. Good luck with the recipe, and thanks. Ken

    • Sorry, Marlene. I answered you yesterday but, as sometimes happens, responses get lost in the WrodPress-o-sphere. My advice is the same that I gave Joanne Frazier–try using a teaspoon or two of minced anchovies. It won’t be the same, but it will be tasty. Or just go with the recipe minus the pancetta. Don’t try substituting turkey bacon or anything related. Those things have their uses, but not here, especially if they contain smoke or sugar. Good luck. Ken

  1. Looks wonderful! I will make this weekend but some of our guests are vegetarian so will leave out the pancetta… any alternate suggestions or just omit? The flavour profile looks amazing! Thanks.

  2. Oh yum. Happy birthday, Ken. Thanks for sharing your bounty and leek memories and wisdom with us. Daughter #1 has fallen in love with Potato Leek soup and Julia Chlld’s pressure cooker version has become our go-to comfort food. But this recipe kicks it up a notch. Elegant comfort food. To paraphrase Jody, that’s my kind of food.

    • I got a bit obsessive with the photographs, just so I didn’t omit anything, but they’re really quite easy to cook, and we easily substitute them for onions in a soup recipe, or when baking fish. Good for your daughter–I don’t think I knew that there was a pressure cooker version, but it makes sense. Why not? Ken

      • Made Oliver’s Chicken Stew last night, just after we finally got the Christmas tree up. It was yummy, though made me realize that my pressure cooker needs some repairs. A new gasket and dial are on my wish list.

      • I’m on my third gasket. The stew is comforting. I feel like tarragon is an often overlooked herb in our unending quest to make all things Italian or Ottolenghi-ish. Ken

      • You could start a tarragon movement! As you know, I love Ottolenghi. Traveling to London and Spain in April and hope to dine at one of his establishments. Someone called Plenty the Moosewood Cookbook of its time. I preferred when everybody didn’t know about him.

  3. Having our septic pumped now, so hard to get our heads around braised leeks. Oh, the glamour of antique home ownership! I will try this recipe once the fumes have cleared. Beautiful photographs as always Ken. Looks delicious. Leftover butternut, pear and ginger soup for dinner.

    • I happen to like leek vinaigrette, but we don’t make it that often (summer picnics, once in awhile). I think the secret advantage of leeks is in the winter, when commercial onions can be quite strong and sharp and leeks make a softer substitute. These are good–I think you’ll like them, especially next to one of those exquisite pork cuts you guys seem to get. Ken

  4. Wow, just lovely. I’m so interested in the Meyer lemon as a flavor in this dish — it must add such a wonderful liveliness. I’ve only had leeks in kimchi and in quiche (two very different things) and not on their own. I’ve definitely not made them on my own yet, either. Ha, I loved your turn of phrase in “Nothing spoils the gustatory epiphany of a caramelized leek faster than a spray of grit between the molars.” Put that way, I believe it!

    • Nothing like a spray of grit between the molars–drives me crazy in salad that hasn’t been cleaned properly. Mayer lemons are great, but I have to say, increasingly unreliable. It seems like every year we see a different incarnation. The ones we’re getting now resemble in taste and smell what I remember Meyer lemons used to be–less acidic and sweeter than regular lemons, and very thin-skinned–except for their orangey hue. The thick-skinned imposters that put in an appearance a few years ago made me swear off them for awhile. Anyway, a leek kimchee sounds great–and potentially beautiful to photograph. Now you’ve got me thinking… I’ll leave the kimchi quiche to you. :-) Ken

      P.S. I tried find a post I thought you had written, about visiting a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn, but couldn’t find it. If I’m not mistaken (and it was you), could you possibly send me the link? Thanks. K.

  5. Lovely recipe. I’ve never seen Meyer lemons for sale in the Uk – I know you say you can substitute an ordinary lemon but if Wikipedia is right, do you think it’s worth mixing in a little zest and juice from a clementine or mandarin?

    • Yes, to all of the above, although it won’t be the same. The most appealing quality of Meyer lemons to me (aside from the fact that they’re fun to photograph) is their perfumey quality. You won’t get that from a clementine or mandarin, but I’m reasonably certain you’d get something tasty nonetheless, as long as you don’t go overboard. You don’t want things to move to the sweet side. Let us know how it comes out. Thanks. Ken

  6. Happy birthday Ken. I am also in the leeks + EVOO camp, especially when it comes with those umami flavours. I think I am doing something with duck for Christmas lunch, to appease turkey-hating in-laws, will do a trial run with leeks in the roasting pan..

    • What a generous response to your in-laws! The next time I get tired of turkey I’ll bring it up and see if anyone offers me a duck instead. :-) If you do make the duck, make sure to keep the liver, sear it in a litte butter with s&p and thyme and then serve it as a bruschetta to whomever’s helping you in the kitchen. Also, if you render any of the duck fat ahead of time, put a bit of it in the leeks in place of some of the olive oil–I think you’ll like the effect. Ken

  7. I m so on my way to the store. These look amazing. Happy Birthday Ken and Merry Christmas to you both! As an aside, I brought your vegetable gratin to a dinner the other night and folks were totally wowed.

    • You guys are going to love these–and good for you too! I’m happy the gratin is establishing itself in your repertoire. I’m going to send you a little box of The Garum Factory cards and I’d appreciate it if you’d slip one under the plate of each serving at your next dinner party. Merry Christmas to you too! Hope we get to lift a glass of champagne together soon. Ken

  8. Happy Birthday Ken. This looks like another great recipe. It will definitely appeal to my mother/father too as my father cannot eat onions so my mother always cooks with leeks, I have a particular weakness for braised leeks ;o)
    On another note I need to get hold of a copy of your cookbook – i did not know you had one published. What is it called? best Torie

    • Hi, Torie–Glad you like the leeks. Our book is called In the Hands of a Chef. If you search amazon.com.uk for Jody Adams you should find it. I think they had about 7 new copies left (it was published in 2002). We’ve revised quite a few of our opinions, and some ingredients have become much more widespread in the US (e.g. farro) since we wrote it–and I supposed we’ve become a bit simpler, certainly in our blogging lives. But there’s still plenty of good food in there. If you ever wanted to roast a goose for Christmas or make Provencal soupe de poisson scratch (hint: call in sick from work for 3 days), our book will tell you how. But there are lots of simple dishes too. There is also a killer recipe for roast duck. Anyway, thanks for the interest. Have a Merry Christmas! Ken

  9. j’adore les endives braisées, mais je n’ai encore jamais essayé de faire braiser des poireaux… c’est une très bonne idée, surtout avec le parmigiano reggiano et les câpres !… merci !… par contre, je trouve un peu dommage d’avoir coupé la pancetta en petits morceaux… :)

  10. I love leeks done this way. Thank you for the re-introduction. I too have a penchant for the leek’s silky yet robust character. Perhaps because I’m a little bit Welsh. Beautiful, mouthwatering photos as always. Sophie

    • Thank you, Sophie. I’m always surprised by the number of otherwise culinarily sophisticated people who pass through our dining room who ask, “What’s that?” They’ve never eaten leeks! And when we explain the response is always the same, “I’ve seen them in the produce aisle–I always wondered what people did with them.” Ken

  11. A first rate post. Delicious ingredients. The usual high standard of photography and, might I add, some pretty fancy use of the language. ” gustatory epiphany” indeed!
    Best,
    Conor

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