Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

I’m always on the hunt for new ways to cook vegetables, and this leek recipe has quickly become a favorite at home. It combines two cooking styles: The leeks are cooked using a method similar to European braised leeks, in which they are seared in a skillet and then gently cooked in the oven until tender. But the flavor profile of the sauce borrows heavily from Sichuan cooking. I think it’s clear that this leek recipe isn’t a traditional Sichuan dish, but it is strongly inspired by what I’ve learned about the cuisine. Served with bowls of warm fried rice or plain rice, it makes for a light but filling vegetarian dinner.

Technique Breakdown: The Braise

The recipe starts by trimming and halving the leeks lengthwise. Leeks must always be washed very carefully to remove sand and grit hidden in their compact layers; there is almost always more there than one might suspect, and it will ruin the dish if you don’t wash it out fully.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

After a careful rinsing, dry the leeks well, then sear them in a skillet of hot oil on their cut sides until well browned. This builds flavor and allows us to deglaze the pan to pick up even more of the flavor of the browned sugars from the leeks. You can use water, vegetable stock, or, if a strictly vegetarian recipe isn’t a requirement, chicken stock to do this. This liquid then gets combined with the leeks in a baking dish before they’re slowly braised in the oven until meltingly tender.

While this happens, it’s time to make the sauce.

The Sauce

The sauce for the leeks is remarkably simple, and relies on several ingredients to deliver bold flavor. Doubanjiang (Sichuan chile bean paste) brings an earthy savoriness and mild heat, while Chinkiang vinegar provides a fruity tang. Soy sauce and garlic, meanwhile, add extra savoriness and depth. Together, they make a punchy and intensely savory sauce with gentle heat that complements the delicate sweetness of the leeks.  

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Since Fuchsia Dunlop’s book The Food of Sichuan introduced me to doubanjiang, it has become one of my pantry staples. Doubanjiang is an essential ingredient in many Sichuan dishes, including fish-fragrant eggplant and braised fish; it packs so much flavor that it functions as something like a super-ingredient, requiring little extra to build a deeply flavorful recipe (it is, without a doubt, the main reason mapo tofu is such a deeply satisfying dish to eat). 

Hailing from Pixian in the Chinese province of Chengdu, the paste is made from split fava beans and wheat flour that have been mixed together, allowed to mold, then fermented with er jing tiao chiles. Salty and savory, doubanjiang is available to purchase at various stages of maturity. According to Dunlop, doubanjiang is most frequently used when it’s been fermented for two to three years, when it has a rich mahogany color. Its rich color might hint at a high degree of heat, but doubanjiang itself isn’t particularly hot.

Once the leeks are braised and the sauce is whipped up, you can simply pour the sauce on top of the leeks and serve. Easy peasy…or leaksy?

For the Leeks: Trim leeks to remove root ends, tough or damaged outer layers, and dark green top parts; reserve trimmings for stock if desired. Cut leeks in half lengthwise, then rinse each leek half under cold, running water, gently fanning layers open while being careful to keep leek halves intact, to wash away any sand or grit. Pat dry.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Preheat oven to 325°F (160°C) and adjust oven rack to middle position. Heat 2 tablespoons (30ml) oil in a 12-inch heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Working in 2 batches, add as many leeks as you can fit in a single layer cut side down. Cook, pressing down gently with a spatula and shaking occasionally, until well browned, about 3 minutes. Transfer leeks to a 9- by 13-inch baking dish, arranging them in a single layer, cut-side up; sprinkle lightly with salt. Repeat with remaining leeks and oil until all leeks are browned, transfer to baking dish and lightly season once more with salt.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Pour water into the skillet; bring to a simmer, scraping up any browned bits, then pour into baking dish with leeks. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue to cook until leeks are completely tender and translucent, about 20 to 30 minutes longer, depending on thickness of the leeks.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Meanwhile, for the Sauce: In a dry wok, toast sichuan peppercorns over medium heat, stirring and tossing often, until fragrant and lightly toasted, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder or small mortar and pestle and grind to a powder. Set aside.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Wipe out wok. Add oil along with the doubanjiang and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until doubanjiang is toasted and fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until very lightly browned, about 1 minute. Add water, sugar, soy sauce, and vinegar, and bring to a boil.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Stir the cornstarch slurry to mix well, then pour into the wok and stir to combine. Return to a boil and cook sauce, stirring occasionally, until thickened to a lightly glaze-like consistency, 4 to 5 minutes.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

When leeks are ready, ladle sauce on top of leeks, then sprinkle with a couple generous pinches of toasted Sichuan peppercorn powder. Serve.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

Large skillet, wok, baking dish

Notes

Doubanjiang (Chinese fermented broad bean-chile paste) can often be found at Chinese or Asian grocery stores and online. When possible, look for Pixian doubanjiang.

If you can’t find Chinkiang vinegar, you can substitute with malt vinegar.

The omission of salt in this recipe is not an error, as both soy sauce and Doubanjiang are quite salty and obviate the need for extra salt.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Leftovers can be kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Rewarm before serving.

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