Last Saturday, at least three vendors at the University Farmers Market had leeks. Nash’s Organic Produce had big papa leeks, Full Circle Farm had mama leeks and Willie Green’s had wee little baby leeks. I bought some of each intending to try some of the braising recipes in Molly Steven’s book, All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking. Braising may be uncomplicated but I wasn’t sure I understood why I would braise these lovely leeks instead of roasting or sauteing them. In the mood for something new, I thought I’d give it a try.
Molly Stevens explains it like this, “At its most basic, braising refers to tucking a few ingredients into a heavy pot with a bit of liquid, covering the pot tightly, and letting everything simmer peacefully until tender and intensely flavored. The technique reaches back to the earliest days of cooking, when the braising pot would be buried in the embers of an open hearth or slid into the community bread oven after the day’s baking and left to simmer slowly for hours. The miracle of braising lies in the fact that the process demands so little from the cook yet what actually occurs is quite complex and wonderful.”
This all sounded great and made even more sense when I looked at my baby leeks. How could I use as much of these as possible? They reminded me of the baby turnips that we’ll be seeing later in the season. So cute, but when all is said and done, are they really worth it?
The answer is yes, yes, yes. Braising with a little roasting at the end is the perfect solution to cooking baby (and mama) vegetables. There’s very little waste and you’ll have a side dish you’ll be serving again and again. Plump with intense flavor and glazed with sweetness, these babies are destined for a place in my favorites file.
The papa leeks found their way into a braised gratin, decadently paired with smoky bacon, fresh thyme from the garden, luscious cream from Golden Glen Creamery and topped with grated cheese from Mt. Townsend Creamery . It’s hard to believe that there were any leftovers but thankfully I took some out to put into a quiche-like tart that was equally delicious.
A few meals later and now I’m all about braising. It’s not hard to imagine trying many different vegetables in all kinds of incarnations using these two simple recipes.
Sweet Braised Baby Leeks
1 lb small leeks (Molly’s original recipe was for scallions, also an excellent choice)
2 1/2 T butter
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 t freshly chopped tarragon (I love the candy-like anise flavor, but you can substitute flat-leaf parsley).
salt & pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9×13 baking dish.
Trim the root ends and a little off the tops of the leeks. Arrange in two rows, bulb side out and greens meeting in the center of the pan. The greens can overlap down the middle. Season with tarragon, salt & pepper.
Pour the water in the dish. Dot top of leeks with the remaining butter.
Cover the dish tightly with foil, place onto the middle rack in the oven. Let it braise undisturbed for 40 minutes.
Remove the foil from the dish. Increase the oven temperature to 450. Roast the leeks for 10-15 minutes, shaking the pan a little to coat the leeks with the liquid in the pan. Continue roasting until the edges of the leeks begin to brown, 5 -10 minutes longer.
Squeeze lemon juice over the top and serve hot or warm.
Braised Leek & Bacon Gratin
4 slices of bacon cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 t butter
6 to 8 medium to large leeks
2 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half lengthwise
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup grated cheese.
1 1/2 T chopped fresh thyme
salt & pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
Fry bacon until it is mostly crisp but still soft. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Set frying pan aside.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 9×13 baking dish.
Trim off the root ends of each leek, leaving the base intact. Cut off the tops at the point where they become dark green and leathery. Cut each leek in half lengthwise and wash thoroughly.
Place leeks in one layer in the baking dish. Tuck garlic halves in and season with salt, pepper, nutmeg and thyme.
Pour bacon grease out of the frying pan. Place the frying pan with the remaining bacon drippings over high heat. Add the stock and bring to a boil to deglaze the pan. Pour the hot stock and bacon drippings over the leeks.
Cover the baking dish tightly with foil and place on a rack in the lower third of the oven. Braise the leeks for 30 minutes.
Turn leeks over using tongs, re-cover with foil and continue to braise another 15 minutes.
Remove the foil, and turn on the broiler.
Add the cream, scatter the bacon over the top and sprinkle with 1/4 cup grated cheese. Broil until it is golden brown and bubbly.
While waiting for spring to realize it’s late, why not try to incorporate something new into your old routine? Make some new friends, walk a new route or even try a new cooking method like braising.