Being a graduate student, where I work is mostly flexible. And being that the people Joel works with are frequently out of the country, he too is sometimes able to work for a day or half day away from the office. So, sometimes we go together and work in a coffee shop for the morning. It’s a lovely little change of pace. Of course, then sometimes Joel loads me up with the extra stuff that he doesn’t want to bike with to work. Something like, say, hypothetically, a messenger bag full of 3 year’s worth of files and papers, and a computer, and a couple of books, and some New Yorker magazines, and some rocks or bowling balls or something that was really darn heavy. And then, I wind up walking home carrying all of this, plus my own ungodly heavy bag of research stuff and text books and sketchbooks and some extra layers of clothing that I’ve had to shed because I’m all hot from the exertion of walking with so much stuff. And of course, this would be the moment when I walk by the market and decide that I really need to buy a leek. (No, not take a leak; buy a leek).
I don’t know if this is at all normal, but I have pretty powerful internal voices, at least when it comes to food (they don’t really help me much in other areas of my life). So, if something in me says, “ooh, leeks! Buy some!” I heed it. Of course, given that I was already carrying half a gazillion pounds of stuff, it would only be reasonable to discover that all the leeks that were available were ginormous. And heavy. Each one was over a pound – I’d say normal for leeks is about one third of that. But, I bought some anyway, and determined that if I did not break my back on the way home, I would have cause to celebrate. Preferably by cooking some leeks, what else?!
I made it one piece. And, I even feel like it was worth it. Leeks are wonderful things. They taste generally like onions and can be used like onions, except they’re milder, sweeter, and just overall more fresh and spring-like in their flavor. They’re like the tall, understatedly sophisticated cousin of the onion who takes tea in the afternoon wearing a lovely little hat and kid gloves. Or something. If you slowly sautee leeks over low heat in butter or olive oil they will caramelize and become meltingly tender and wonderful for sauces or soups or in dishes like quiches, savory bread puddings, risottos, you name it. Leeks are especially good with creamy, cheesey flavors, mushrooms, light lemony flavors, light meats or seafoods or eggs. The only tricky thing is cleaning the leeks because dirt can get trapped between their many layers. A good way to clean leeks is first to take off the dark green top part (right above the light green part, where it starts to angle away from the main body) and then soak the leeks in water for about 10 minutes and then rinse them. This’ll usually do it.
Using the leek I bought that day I made caramelized leeks with white wine that I simply tossed with pasta. I also recently branched out from caramelizing and tried out a recipe for some wonderful braised leeks with a mustard vinaigrette. I’ll share both!
Pasta with Caramelized Leeks (serves 2, easily doubles)
- About a half pound dried pasta (this would also be really good over cheese ravioli)
- 2 medium leeks (or one super huge one!)
- 2 Tbs. butter or olive oil
- about 1/3 cup of white wine, or reserved pasta water if you have no wine
- salt and pepper to taste
- chopped parsley for garnish, if desired
- a protein accompaniment, for example, ½ cup parmesan or goat cheese, toasted pine nuts or almonds, sautéed mushrooms, sautéed Italian sausage or pieces of chicken, or pan seared scallops if you want to get fancy!
- Remove the dark green tops, and the root from the bottom and then wash the leeks. Heat the butter or oil in a large frying pan over medium, add the leeks and stir to coat. Sprinkle with a little dash of salt. Turn the heat to low and cook for 20-30 minutes until they’re all brown and caramelized.
- In the meantime bring a pot of water to boil for the pasta and prep whatever else you decide to add (I personally really recommend some sautéed mushrooms and a sprinkling of parmesan). Cook the pasta until al dente and drain (reserve some pasta water if you’re going to use it).
- Add the leeks and protein accompaniment to the pasta. Then, pour your wine or pasta water into the pan that you cooked the leeks in, turn up the heat to medium-high, and cook for a couple of minutes, scraping the browned bits from the bottom of the pan into the liquid. Pour this over the pasta and leeks and toss everything together. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.
Braised Leeks with Mustard Vinaigrette (adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, serves 4)
This is a simple and very delicious way to star leeks. Though in the end, it might be the vinaigrette that steals the show! With some delicious, crusty bread (foccacia, for example) this makes a flavorful first course, side dish, or light lunch. I would also plan to try making this as a main dish by cooking the leeks, putting them on plates, topping them with seared scallops or fillets of some white fish (cod, for example), and then pouring the vinaigrette over the whole thing. I’d probably still serve it with some good crusty bread. Or maybe over couscous!
- 4 medium leeks, or 8 small leeks
- 1 carrot, sliced
- 1 rib celery sliced
- a bay leaf, and a mixture of some herbs like thyme, oregano, or parsley
- salt to taste
- 2 Tbs. of light colored vinegar or lemon juice
- 1 shallot, peeled and diced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 Tbs. mustard
- 2 Tbs. sour cream (or crème fraiche or plain yogurt)
- 3 Tbs. olive oil
- 1 tsp. dried parsley or basil or oregano (depending on which flavor you like best)
- 1 Tbs. chopped fresh chives, or 1 Tbs. sliced scallion/green onion (just the white and light green part) (optional)
- salt and pepper to taste
- a couple of Tbs. of chopped olives (green or black)
- Remove the dark green parts and very bottoms of the leeks. Clean the leeks, then slit each in half lengthwise, stopping about 1 inch above the bottom.
- Place the leeks in a large pan with the carrot, celery, bay leaf, and some herbs. Add water or broth until the leeks are almost covered. Cover the pan, bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer, and simmer for about 20-25 minutes, until the leeks are totally soft.
- In the meantime, prepare the vinaigrette by whisking together the remaining ingredients (the vinegar through the chopped olives).
- When the leeks are done, remove them from the water/broth, pull them apart into pieces and divide them between 4 bowls or plates. Pour vinaigrette over each plate of leeks and serve. (And save the leftover broth for soup – it should be pretty flavorful!)