The evening started promisingly: a huge bunch of leeks, a terrific bottle of Chardonnay, a nip in the air outside, and a blue Le Creuset pot eager to get to work. I was trying out a new recipe, Wine-Braised Leeks Over Garlic Toast, and I was looking forward to a cooking session filled with delicious smells and ending with a fantastic, French-inspired dish.
The leeks that I had purchased at HEB were absolutely enormous, and I felt compelled to document my shock at their size. Also, I have been learning how to use the self-timer button on my camera.
Once I recovered from my shock, I got right to work at my cooking station. Here I began doing what I do best in the kitchen: not following instructions. The recipe called for using the tender white parts of 8 leeks, halved, in a 9x13-inch pan. Just that part of the recipe alone gave me problems. First, if you look at the leeks in my hands, you’ll note that most of the leek is green stuff. I am way, way too frugal not to use most or all of any given vegetable, and yes, while the green part of a leek tends to be a bit tougher, I figured braising would soften any tough parts into submission. Second, wine is a major ingredient in the braising liquid, and white wine in particular tends to be acidic—at least, I think it is, based on how it tastes. Acid is known to react with metals, and the only 9x13-inch pan I own is made of metal. I made two executive decisions to deal with these issues. The first is that I used six leeks, white and green parts, and I chopped them rather than halving them. The second is that I used my Le Creuset pot for the braising, carefully removing the handle’s lid so that it wouldn’t melt in the 450-degree heat.
So far, so good. I poured myself a glass of wine and got to work with my leek preparation.
I chopped and washed my leeks, then tipped them into the pot. I peeled a boatload of garlic and scattered them over the leeks. All was well until I opened my can of olives, where I expected to find big chunks of chopped black olives. Instead, I opened the can and found what looked like large pieces of black dirt. These olives were not chopped; they’d been almost pulverized into a puree. Turning up my nose, I scraped them into the leeks, where they made the leeks look like they’d been chucked into a pot straight from the garden, full of dirt.
It was awful, but I kept going. Into the pot I stirred a cup each of white wine (an Eberle Chardonnay from 2009—delicious and highly recommended!). I scattered some dried thyme and olive oil over the whole thing, sprinkled a touch of salt and pepper, then covered the pot with its lid and tucked it in the oven for 30 minutes. I pulled the pot out, stirred everything around, and tucked it back into the oven for 40 minutes. When the leeks were done with their oven time, I eagerly and carefully pulled them out of the oven to find something that looked dangerously overcooked.
The heat had indeed done its work, turning my leeks brown and black in some places, the dish wafting a sharp, briney, herbal aroma. I wasn’t too worried about the deeply colored bits, because I think we all know that the caramelized bits are the tastiest. But what did concern me was that the braising liquid had all but disappeared during that final 40-minute step, the one done without the lid to trap moisture.
Still, I screwed up my courage and continued with my recipe. I toasted some thick-cut slices of bread, buttered them generously, and placed a slice in my favorite white bowl. I ladled some leeks onto the bread, then set the table and sat down to eat.
In a word, the taste was harsh. The dish was overwhelmed by the strong, salty flavor of olives; the more delicate floral and vegetal flavors of the leeks and wine had all but disappeared. The bread was good and chewy, the butter rich and soothing, but the leeks were insistent. It was hard to enjoy this dish because the balance of flavors was so lopsided. It was a failure, for sure.
I blame myself. I think this recipe is probably delicious, especially if you follow instructions, though I do hold that my alterations could work with a shorter braise time and maybe just a few olives added at serving time. And I most certainly wouldn’t use ugly, ground-up olives; I’d use pretty, whole olives that I carefully halved and then scattered over each serving.
I hate to end on a down note, so I’ll mention two very good things about trying this recipe. One was the Eberle Chardonnay, which I admit I chose because Matt and I have visited this winery and I felt confident that the wine would be good for drinking and cooking. The second was the bread that I picked up for this dish. It was a seven-grain loaf from HEB’s bakery section, and it was delicious, especially when toasted and buttered. A good loaf of bread is not to be taken for granted, so I’ll keep this one in mind for future reference.
Now, in the wake of this recipe failure, I must redeem myself.