The Hungry Engineer

Italian ... Again

14 Aug 2008

There were two things that drove me to cook what I cooked for Tuesday night’s dinner. The first was this post about burrata cheese by la stomach, and the second were these beautiful braised leeks Sean and I had once had at a local restaurant many months ago. Those leeks were like onion-y butter - they were unspeakably good. I tried a couple of times to recapture that goodness at home but to no avail. The texture was always … wrong. But the original dish lingered in my memory and I really wanted to re-create it at home.

I was pleased to find in my most recent Bon Appetit (which is the September issue – which I’ve had since maybe the 2nd or 3rd of August), a recipe that involved both burrata cheese and braised leeks. Burrata cheese is sort of like mozzarella with a creamy center. Leeks are like very large, very mild green onions. If you’ve never cooked with them before, they can seem sort of daunting, but the flavor is absolutely worth it. The braising method was a bit different than others I had employed, but the flavors sounded really nice, and I was super-excited about the texture combination – melt-in-your-mouth tender leeks, creamy cheese, crunchy mustard breadcrumbs. Mmmmm.

On my shopping day, I looked around for burrata and couldn’t find it. I stopped one of the cheese counter folks and quizzed him about it. He was kind of funny – no sooner had my request for burrata escaped my lips than he said, “Was this in a magazine or something? You’re the third person to ask me about that cheese.” I confirmed his suspicions and he sheepishly explained that they didn’t currently carry the cheese but with so many requests, he’d look into it. (He also talked to me a little about finding US suppliers for more of their cheese since shipping costs had become so horrendous.) Instead I chose some water-packed mozzarella and figured it would have to be close enough for now.

Due to the quantities I had purchased, I altered the recipe a bit. For the most part, I roughly halved it. I kept the proportions when making the breadcrumbs. One of the flavorings for the breadcrumbs was roasted mustard seeds. This may have been my favorite set of prep steps in the whole recipe. I took a tablespoon of brown mustard seeds and roasted them as directed. It was wacky watching them change color from their dark brown to sort of a light charcoal gray. But the real magic happened once they were cooled and ground up in the spice grinder. I breathed in the aroma of those ground roasted mustard seeds and was in heaven. The smell was incredible – so much so that I made Sean smell too. (He said something clever like “Oh wow what are we eating that has that in it?” Breadcrumbs Baby … breadcrumbs.)

The leek-braising is where I sort of used what I had instead of strictly adhering to the recipe, so I’ll describe it in a bit more detail. I sliced three leeks in half lengthwise, vigorously washed the grit from them, and then laid them cut-side down in an 8"x8" glass baking dish (it’s really not terribly important that you dry them before you braise them in liquid). I poured about ¾ cup of chicken stock around them, thinly sliced half a lemon and laid it on top, and then threw a few sprigs of fresh thyme on top of that. Next, I covered the pan with aluminum foil and baked for about half an hour. Then I uncovered the pan, removed the lemons and thyme and returned it to the oven to bake till the liquid was largely gone. For my leeks, this only took about 15-20 minutes (so regardless of which recipe you follow, keep an eye on them!).

I laid the leeks out on a plate and topped them with mustard vinaigrette. Then I sliced the mozzarella and laid it out on the plates with the leeks and topped the works with the wonderful roasted mustard seed breadcrumbs. It was delicious. The mozzarella was very creamy and extremely flavorful (though I’m still really excited about trying out the burrata at some point). The leeks were wonderful. They weren’t just onion-y butter … they were lemon-y onion-y butter. And the texture combination was just as good as predicted. Now that I’ve found a method that works for me, I have other ideas for braised leek goodness, but for now, this one is the reigning champion in my book.

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