Braised Leek with Chickpeas, Saffron and Marjoram

Today’s recipe is brought to you by this lonely leftover leek.
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This leek has a story, as many of my leftovers do. It traveled back from Central New York, where Matt and I spent the Presidents’ Day holiday weekend. Saturday was Valentine’s Day, and our original plan was to dine at a restaurant a few miles outside of Ithaca. First we spend a little time at my sister’s house, gathered cozily around the family’s large rustic table, blazing wood burning stove nearby, celebrating my niece’s 6th birthday. As Matt and I started to head into town, the snowstorm began. This particular weekend’s snowstorm (because anyone in the Northeast can attest to the fact they have been weekly occurrences) featured periods of whiteout conditions. The drive was challenging. Glumly, I agreed to nix the plan for dinner out. Our sensible revised plan was to enjoy a leisurely stop at Wegman’s to shop for dinner ingredients!

We opted to plan for fish and vegetables steamed in parchment hearts (how appropriate!), which required a bunch of leeks. And that brings me to this leek! And the recipe from the leek section of Alice Waters’ cookbook, The Art of Simple Food II.

Only a few pantry additions were required for my to make this little dish. I recommend keeping cooked chickpeas on hand for times like this, because they can enhance other leftover vegetables to make a more solid meal meal.
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Braised Leeks with Chickpeas, Saffron and Dried Marjoram over Couscous
Adapted from Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food II
Makes 2 large servings

1 large leek
1/2 sweet onion
, sliced or chopped
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2 Cup light chicken stock, or water
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
dried chile flakes
salt to taste
1.5 Cups cooked chickpeas
1 garlic clove
Couscous
, cooked according to taste/package instructions
additional extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Prep your leek and onion. In my case, I had leftover chopped onion that needed to be used.
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Cut off the root end of the leek, and most of the greens, leaving about 1 inch.
Slice in half lengthwise and dip in cold water to swish out any dirt or sand. Pat dry. You could slice the leeks in half lengthwise again, to quarter.
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Prep the saffron mixture.
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See my saffron? It might be as old as the number of years I have been living on my own…seven plus? *Gasp* That means that the expensive price of $17.50 seems much more reasonable if you calculate its per-year value.

Of course dried herbs aren’t supposed to be kept that long, to be truly flavorful. But the old saffron will still be effective at adding the golden color. And hey, we eat with our eyes, right?

With a mortar and pestle, crush the saffron threads.
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If the vessel is large enough, stir in the 1/2 Cup broth, a generous pinch of salt, and 2 teaspoons of EVOO and set near the stove.

DSC_2404Smash the garlic clove and set aside for heating with the chickpeas.

Set a large pan with a heavy bottom over medium heat; pour 1 Tablespoon of olive oil. Arrange the leeks cut-side down and allow to brown slightly, about 6 minutes. After about 4 minutes of the leeks cooking, add in the onions.
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Turn the leeks over. Sprinkle with salt, marjoram, and a pinch of dried chile flakes.
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Pour in the saffron stock. Add more water to be sure the leeks are sitting in liquid, but not submerged. Partly cover the pan, and cook about 12 minutes, until leeks are tender. Remove the lid and allow the liquid to reduce for about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, heat together the chickpeas and puréed garlic.
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Season the leek mixture with salt as needed.

To serve, plate some couscous and spoon chickpeas over top. Spoon some of the leeks and onions, and the braising juices, on top of that. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil.
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Leek and Squash Soup

I’m still here! It’s been a busy time. Shall I fill you in? For starters, after two years in a job that didn’t inspire me, I made the switch. The old job happened to come with a short commute and hours that afforded me a generous amount of free time to cook and clean and socialize. Now, I’m commuting from the suburbs to the city, a hub of activity and excitement. It requires a bit more time and energy, but I was ready for it. While I’m still young, I’m going to go where things are happening!

September is a special month, filled with birthdays and wedding anniversaries (such as my own, for both), including a new anniversary established by one of my sisters, who married at a lovely ceremony on September 6. September also has the unique feature of containing two of the most pleasant seasons, summer and fall.

Along with all the events and occasions and changes, it’s harvest time. Tomatoes and zucchini and peppers continue to stream in from the farm share, plus new crops of potatoes and squash. It’s a good time to stay home and cook!

Yet Matt and I also took an overdue trip to visit some of my family in Vermont. We enjoyed a lovely September weekend that included exploring a number of farms in the region by bicycle. (Almost 30 miles of biking…I was almost too exhausted to fully appreciate the agricultural wonders!) During the visit, I made a casual comment about how much I like leeks. I noted that because my farm share so rarely includes them in the weekly offering, and I never buy them because I have plenty of vegetables, I don’t enjoy them at home as much as I think I would. My sister proceeded to pull a bunch out of her garden and send them home with us. So exciting! First I grilled a couple along with zucchini and added walnuts and a lemon dressing with parsley as per this recipe. I knew I wanted to use a bunch of them in a soup. Then the acorn squashes on the counter called my name.
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As usual, I sought out a recipe for validation. Like many soups, however, this is one that you could totally wing. I realized well after the fact that it was especially appropriate to make a squash soup at the end of September around my anniversary, because we served little cups of butternut squash soup for one of the courses at our wedding four(!) years ago!
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Acorn Squash and Leek Soup
Adapted from Food & Wine

3 1/2 pounds acorn squash (about two small) or similar, halved
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large leeks
, white and tender green parts, roughly chopped
5 fresh thyme sprigs or 1 teaspoon dried
4 Cups chicken stock or low sodium broth
1 teaspoons salt
1/3 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Optional toppings:
About 5 Tablespoons sour cream
About 2 Tablespoons chives
, chopped
2-4 slices of bacon (to taste), cooked and crumbled

Set the oven to 350°. Prepare the squash by slicing in half.
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The recipe I followed said to scrape out seeds AFTER the halves are cooked, but I would recommend scraping them out at this point. Place the squash, cut side down, on a baking sheet.
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Roast until tender, checking at 30 minutes. Allow to cool so that you can handle the squash.

In the meantime, prep your leeks by washing thoroughly in a few changes of water. I took my green parts and tossed them in my freezer bag of vegetable scraps; I recently read that they contribute nicely to well-flavored vegetable stock.
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Chop up the white and light green parts.
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Set your large heavy saucepan or Dutch Oven over low heat. Add the butter and melt. Toss in the leeks and thyme and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until soft and browned, about 40 minutes.

Before...

Before…


After!

After!


Discard the thyme sprigs.

When your squash is ready to handle, separate the flesh from the skin. If you waited until this point to scoop out and discard the seeds, do this now, taking care not to toss out too much of the delicious roasted flesh.
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Then scrape the squash from the skin. Get all the good stuff!
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Stir the stock and squash into the leek butter mixture.

Simmer for about 20 minutes. Using an immersion blender, or in a blender or food processor, puree the soup until smooth.
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Season with the salt and pepper.

Spoon the soup into bowls and top each with 1 Tablespoon sour cream, a sprinkling of the bacon, and 1 teaspoon fresh chives if you have them, for garnish. Serve with toast to round out the dish.
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Healthy Choice

Remember the leeks from the broccoli soup recipe? Well, the store doesn’t sell leeks individually — you have to buy several — so I had some left over.  I also wanted to use fish in a meal I cooked one of these days.  As you may know, one of the those recommended habits for healthy eating is incorporating 2-3 servings of fish per week, to gain the benefits from healthy fats.  This meal was going to be shared with my husband for once, and while quite fit in general, Matt’s blood work has shown that he could improve his cholesterol levels.

I came across a recipe on the Food Network website by Ina Garden for “Salmon with Lentils.”  Subsequently, while searching for a particular recipe among my saved selections and reading through several, I discovered that leeks and salmon and leeks and lentils are common combinations. I am going to try to store this tidbit in my memory for future planning. This recipe also used–surprise surprise–more celery and carrots from my refrigerator stock.

Salmon with Lentils

adapted from Ina’s Barefoot in Paris

Serves 2 plus 1-2 servings of leftovers

Ingredients
6 ounces lentils (I had this much left of black beluga lentils I bought in a whim with a gift card to Williams Sonoma. These are great lentils though, if you can find them, and they work well in place of green lentils, which could also work here).
a few tablespoons of olive oil
1.75 cups chopped yellow onions
1.5 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts only (Leeks can acquire a lot of dirt and grime during harvest. To prepare, cut to separate white and light green part from green leaves. Cut once lengthwise. Submerge in a bowl of cold water and slosh layers around. Drain and then arrange pieces together to chop crosswise).
3/4 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1.5 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup homemade chicken stock, or good canned broth
1.5 tablespoons tomato paste (Hint: when you open a can of tomato paste, which rarely needs to be used in its entirety, measure individual tablespoon amounts into small pieces of plastic wrap or into ice cube trays and freeze.  Keep scoops together in a container for later use)
1.5 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or to taste
6-8 oz center-cut salmon fillets, in the quantity of the number of people you are serving (in my case, 2, wild-caught all the way)

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Place the lentils in a heat-proof bowl and cover with boiling water. Set aside for 15 minutes, then drain.

Heat oil in a medium-large saute pan.  Add the onions, leeks, thyme, salt, and pepper and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes, until the onions are translucent. 
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Add the garlic and cook for 2 more minutes. Add the drained lentils, celery, carrots, chicken stock, and tomato paste. Cover and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes, until the lentils are tender. Add the vinegar and season to taste.

While the lentils are simmering, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

For the salmon, heat a cast-iron or other oven-proof saute pan over high heat for 4 minutes. Rub both sides of the salmon fillets with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

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When the pan is very hot, place the salmon in the pan and cook over medium heat without moving them for 2 minutes, until very browned. Flip fillets, and move pan into preheated oven.  Cook 5-7 minutes, until the salmon is cooked rare and still moist. Scoop lentil-vegetable mixture on plates and place a salmon fillet on top.
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Enjoy your meal, and look forward to the dessert you can afford to have because you made a healthy choice for dinner! 🙂