I’ve developed an affinity for well-cooked vegetables. It’s been something of a closeted liking for sometime, the kind of thing I cook only with the kitchen door firmly closed and enjoy only in front of the dog. Don’t get me wrong, mostly I like my vegetables just warmed through, green still vibrant, and texture pleasantly toothsome. But recently, probably because I’m alone in the kitchen so much, what was once a guilty pleasure, has become a staple: really cooking the sh*t out of a plate of vegetables.
Let me explain. I grew up with parents who grew up in the 50s, and inherited from them many important life lessons, not least among them that vegetables are best eaten as close to their living state as possible. Steamed, boiled, grilled, or roasted, the approach was always less is more. This reasoning being a direct result of the nightmares my parents, especially my mom, remember from a childhood spent eating vegetables out of cans. My mom told me once that she was vehemently convinced she hated asparagus until her mid-twenties, having only experienced it as an unpleasantly stringy and limp mass you spoon over dry toast. Needless to say, she was rather surprised and pleased to discover crisp, green world beyond canned asparagus.
So while I have almost no experience with canned vegetables, save for the occasional creamed corn at my grandma’s house, my parents mushy-vegetable aversion was something I picked up vicariously and that’s dictated my approach to cooking all things green (and most things orange, white, purple, etc.)
This hard held veggie doctrine, well, it’s been cracking for sometime. I think it started with zucchini. Have you ever cooked a zucchini until it’s unrecognizable? The bright green muddied and the whole pile collapsing? Sounds terrible, I know, but bear with me. The key here is slow and low, maybe a little diced onion and just a small clove of garlic along with a big glug of the best olive oil you can muster. Get the onion going first, cook it over low heat until it’s tender and just beginning to caramelize, then add a your zucchini and garlic along with a pinch of salt and big glug of olive oil. Get things hot, then reduce the heat and cover, and just keep cooking. Once the zucchini is so soft it could be easily mashed, you know it’s done. Now take this mass of zucchini and spoon it over a bowl of rice, grate over some parmesan, drizzle a little more olive oil, and maybe even fry a sunny side up egg to lay on top.
But something I’m too embarrassed to serve to guests.
Well anyways, there’s just a certain pleasure in cooking some vegetables into oblivion. Leeks are perfect candidates for over-cooking, and fortunately much less eyebrow-raising than overcooked zucchini. Here leeks are first boiled, then wrapped in salty ham, smothered in creamy-mustard and cheese and baked into a meltingly tender ham-wrapped heap; all the leeks’ original sting rendered sweetly delicious.
Don’t you wish other things in your life could be so easily coaxed into submission?
This is the kind of thing that needs a big crust of bread for mopping and a crisp bitter salad for balance, and honestly, it’s the kind of thing of which my mom and dad would heartily approve.
One Year Ago: Glazed Raspberry Lime Muffins.
Two Years Ago: River Cottage’s Baked Pumpkin Soup.
Serves 2 for dinner with salad and bread and can easily by doubled. People freak out when you make this for brunch, just sayin’.
Inspired by Luisa Weiss’ My Berlin Kitchen.
Creamy Baked Leeks with Ham and Mustard
- 1 bunch fresh leeks, about 5-6
- a corresponding number of slices good ham
- 4 heaping spoons creme fraiche
- 2 tsp dijon mustard
- 2oz grated cheese (guyere or good cheddar are nice)
- fresh ground pepper
Trim the dark green parts away from the leeks, peel the outer leaves, and trim the ends. Cut each leek almost in half lengthwise and then rinse under cold water to ensure no dirt/sand is left. Boil a medium pan of salted water and add the cleaned leeks. Cook 4-5 minutes until tender, remove with a slotted spoon, cool, and blot dry with a clean towel or paper towels. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and combine the creme fraiche, mustard, and cheese.
Wrap each cooked leek in a slice of ham and arrange close together in a baking dish. Smother with the creme fraiche mixture and grind over plenty of pepper. Bake about 40 minutes or until bubbly and golden brown. Serve immediately with bread and salad.