Leeks are the archetypal wingman. They disappear into stews and soups and gently flavor sautéed vegetables. They melt into sauces and hide out in stir-fries. I mean, they even play second fiddle to potatoes, for god’s sake—that’s potato-leek soup, not leek-potato soup.
Well, Mr. Leek, today, opportunity knocks.
When braised, leeks retain their subtle aroma but acquire a completely tender, almost meaty texture as they slowly break down and absorb liquid. To heighten their sweetness a bit, it’s best to caramelize the cut surfaces of the split leeks in hot oil before adding the liquid. Why the cut surface? Because it’s easier to lay them flat that way. Even though only the edges will acquire any color, everything’s cool—those wonderful browned compounds are water-soluble, which means that after you add your liquid, many of them will dissolve and spread throughout the dish.
You can use any type of liquid you’d like, but I like to use chicken stock, with a few nuggets of good butter. The butter keeps things lubricated while the leeks cook, and it will add richness to the sauce the leeks and stock form as they slowly braise in the oven.
NOTE: For best results, look for leeks about 1 inch in diameter.
SERVES 4 TO 6
8 medium leeks (see Note above) white and light green parts only
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1 cup homemade or low-sodium canned chicken stock
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest (from 1 lemon)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1. Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 375°F. Split the leeks lengthwise in half, leaving the root end attached, and discard any tough outer layers. Rinse under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels.
2. Heat the olive oil in a 12-inch heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add half of the leeks cut side down and cook, without moving them, until well browned on the cut side, about 4 minutes. Transfer cut side up to a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Sear the remaining leeks and add to the baking dish.
3. Dot the top of leeks with the butter, scatter the thyme over the top, and pour the chicken stock over the leeks. Cover tightly with foil, place in the oven, and cook until the leeks are completely tender, about 30 minutes; remove the foil for the last 10 minutes of braising. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes.
4. Discard the thyme stems, season to taste with salt and pepper, and transfer the leeks to a serving platter. Stir the lemon zest and juice into the pan juices and pour on top of the leeks. Serve immediately.