braised leeks with oven-baked polenta

4    |   
Prep Time:
20 minutes    |   
Cook Time:
35 minutes

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leeks polenta

Why is it that silly jokes stick in your head? I’ll never forget the first “dirty” joke my mother taught me: Say lettuce and spell cup (let us c-u-p…get it?). Or my teacher in cooking school holding up a giant allium (member of the onion family) and saying in a loud Julia-Child voice, First you take a leek!

Silliness aside, the best thing you can do with a leek is braise it, as I discovered in a recipe from the Wall St. Journal (their Weekend Journal food section is great). It was lush and complex in a way you’d never think leeks could be and it was so easy to make. The leeks are lightly seared then smothered with tomatoes and olives and braised in the oven. Chef Margot Henderson, who created the dish, serves it over instant polenta but I serve it with my shortcut oven-baked polenta because it bakes for the same amount of time as the leeks and the flavor is ten times better. Together they make one of the best vegetarian dishes ever. No joke.

6 medium-size leeks
3 tablespoons olive oil
2/3 cup white or red wine
1 large can (28-ounce) whole Marzano tomatoes, crushed
2 to 8 garlic cloves, peeled (depending on your tolerance for garlic!)
2/3 cup wrinkled cured black olives or Niçoise olives (with pits)
4 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Polenta (see recipe below)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Cut green tops and roots off leeks; peel away any tough outer layers to get to the tender white parts. Split leeks lengthwise down the center and rinse well to get rid of grit. Pat leeks dry on paper towels.

In a wide frying pan or saute pan over medium-high heat, warm olive oil. Add leeks in a single layer and cook until lightly browned all over, turning as needed, about 4 minutes total.

Pour in wine and simmer until it clings to leeks, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a baking dish large enough to hold leeks in a single layer. Pour tomatoes over leeks and scatter with garlic, olives, thyme and bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bake until leeks are meltingly tender and sauce thickens and darkens in color, 25 to 35 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare polenta and bake in the same oven.

To serve, divide polenta among four shallow pasta plates or soup bowls and top with leeks and sauce. Sprinkle with extra parmesan, if desired.

Adapted from Margot Henderson, Wall St. Journal

Oven-Baked Polenta

2 tablespoons butter, plus additional for buttering dish
2-1/2 cups milk (any % fat)
1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup coarse-ground yellow polenta

Preheat an oven to 350°F. Generously butter the bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking dish. Combine milk, 2-1/2 cups water, 2 tablespoons butter, and salt in a medium saucepan. Place over medium-high heat until butter melts and liquid is steaming. Whisk in the polenta then reduce heat to medium. Continue to whisk until mixture thickens to a porridge-like consistency and large bubbles break the surface, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from heat and pour polenta into buttered baking dish. Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit over the polenta and butter one side of it generously. Place parchment, buttered side down, on top of polenta and press lightly onto surface. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove and let polenta stand, with parchment on, for 10 minute before serving.