Thursday, February 09, 2006

Braised Leeks in Cream

It is only recently that I have come to appreciate the subtle, sweet nature of leeks. In soups, they are bold enough on their own, or a perfect cover up for those who detest the onion. Leeks are a fabulous flavor enhancer to seafood dishes (perfect with broiled scallops). They are delicious in an omelet, over a salad, or slightly sautéed in a vegetable purée.

There is written evidence of leeks since the time of the pyramids. The Greeks once dipped leeks in their very precious oils before eating, thinking it did marvels for their singing voice. In present day Europe, the leek is jokingly known as “poor man’s asparagus”. I would have to say the earthy flavor of asparagus is far different than the subdued leek. To this day, the leek is the Welsh national emblem.

Related to the onion and garlic, leeks carry the same health-promoting qualities: reduction of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol while raising HDL (“good”) cholesterol; reduced risk to certain forms of cancer; and high in many vitamins, especially those that stabilize blood sugar levels.

Leeks are best late fall to early spring when they are in season, though they are available all year round. When buying leeks, look for ones on the smaller side. These offer a more sweet and full flavor. They should be firm, with a good portion of white stalk (in most dishes you will only use the white part). If stored in a plastic bag, leeks can last in the refrigerator for just over one week if stored untrimmed and unwashed. Once cooked, leeks will only retain freshness for about two days.

Make sure to wash leeks well. Usually grown in sandy soil, dirt can easily get into the inner rings of the leek. To wash, remove outer leaf and slice in half lengthwise. Under running water, use your fingers to wash between the layers, scrubbing any dirt that may cling.

I have wanted to make this recipe for a while. I go to the grocery, buy leeks, eventually making soup and end up throwing them in. When I had scallops in the house, I was going to braise the leeks, resting the scallops on a fresh, green bed. This would be an excellent pairing and suggest people try it. (Instead I went for horseradish spiked mashed potatoes, which was equally delicious). In this recipe, the cream and Parmesan cheese compliment the sweet leek perfectly, while the bread crumbs toast into a lovely crunch. Perfect standing on its own as accompaniment, this dish is terrific.

Serving Size= 2. Prep time= 5 minutes. Cook time= 45 minutes.
* 4 leeks, halved. Trimmed of dark green leaves and washed.
* 2 cups milk or cream (I used milk because I had no cream. Cream would be excellent though)
* 1 cup vegetable stock
* 2 tsp thyme
* ½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
* ½ cup bread crumbs

1) Preheat oven to 400F. After washing and trimming leeks, assemble halves layers up in a baking dish. Pour in the cream (or milk) and stock, sprinkle thyme over top. Bake uncovered on the center rack for 40 minutes.
2) Remove, sprinkle bread crumbs and Parmesan over the leeks. Return to oven and bake another 5 minutes, until bread crumbs are lightly golden. Remove and serve.

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