In the early ’80s, the local Hamptons farmers around the restaurant where I was cooking used to pay us for our used cooking grease. This was before biodiesel was a big deal, so it must have been for fodder, or oiling their machinery. We gave it to them by the drumful, and every spring and fall they would return the emptied drums with bunches and bunches of leeks stacked on top.
At that time, leeks were considered a “garbage crop.” The cost of planting and harvesting them didn’t produce a profit, because nobody wanted leeks. But we did.
Leeks are cool. They’re onions, only better. They’re sweeter, without the sharp bite some onions have. They won’t overpower the more delicate flavors in a dish.
I use them in soups, stuffing, omelettes, tarts, pizzas, and, well, you get the idea. They’re a favorite ingredient of mine. If you ask me, they’re the perfect Thanksgiving side, too: great on their own, they’re even better paired up with mashed potatoes. And in this brothy braise they’ll revive even the driest turkey.
Thanksgiving dinner can be overwhelming to even the most seasoned cooks. There’s a lot to do even if you’re cooking for just immediate family or your pandemic pod, and somehow you are supposed to have all the moving parts finish at the same time. I like this braise because it’s undemanding. You can put it together a day ahead — just save the breadcrumbs and broiling until you’re ready to serve.
If you’ve got a turkey going, you probably have extra broth underway, but store-bought broth is fine — just taste the sauce before you add salt, as most brands have lots. Packaged breadcrumbs are fine, too — panko is best, but any unseasoned variety will do.
Braised Leeks With Garlic Breadcrumbs
4 leeks, medium thick
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
½ cup white wine
1½ cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 garlic cloves
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp. cold butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Trim the roots and green ends off the leeks and cut them in half lengthwise. Rinse under cold water, making sure to run the water through the layers to remove any dirt or sand. Pat dry.
Heat two tablespoons of oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Place the leeks cut side down in the oil and cook until they are slightly browned, three or four minutes. Use tongs to turn them over and cook further, until the rounded side is browned. Turn the leeks back over so the cut side is down and peel off and discard any layers that look papery.
Add the wine to the pan and swirl it to deglaze the bottom. Let the wine cook for 1 to 2 minutes and then add the stock and bay leaf. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, until leeks are fork tender.
While leeks are simmering, push garlic though a press or chop very fine and mix with breadcrumbs and remaining tablespoon of oil.
Remove the leeks from the heat and transfer them to a broiler-safe cooking sheet, leaving any remaining liquid in the pan.
Sprinkle the garlic and breadcrumb mixture over the cut side of the leeks and run the dish under the broiler until breadcrumbs begin to brown, 3 or 4 minutes. Remove leeks to a serving dish.
Return the pan with cooking juices to medium heat, stir in the cold butter, and reduce for a couple of minutes — the sauce will thicken and get glossy. Pour over leeks and serve.