“Leeks,” the cashier says, “oh, my grandmother!”
Her accent is lilting, almost musical. She takes the bundle of green and white allium from me, holds them, and I watch as she’s transported to a time and place far away from where we stand. The leeks are thin and elegant, a gorgeous variation of greens and whites, coated in chocolate brown dirt.
“My grandmother,” she says talking to the air, “she used to cook the leeks all the time. In a stew. So sweet. I remember how sweet it was.”
I am in a General Store on Martha’s Vineyard. Away from home with time to listen. The woman at the counter, in her 30s, has thick dark hair and an exotic, tired face.
"Where are you from?" I ask. "Where did your grandmother cook?"
“Romania,” she answers looking me in the eye. I think she might cry. I want to hear about how her grandmother coaxed the sweetness from leeks. I want to know what else goes into a Romanian leek stew — what it might look like, taste like.
But a line has formed behind me: Early morning shoppers coming in for coffee, newspapers, and blueberry muffins. The cashier hands me the bundle of leeks and says, with sadness in her voice, “That will be $4.85, please.” And I know the moment is over. She is back in the store, ready to wait on the next customer. Romania and her grandmother are gone as quickly as they came.
Leeks are subtle, yet powerful. They are sweet, tender and versatile. Yet, somehow, they are also the most overlooked member of the onion family. I've come to think of them like a beautiful woman hiding beneath big glasses and an over-sized sweater. Under-rated. Under-appreciated. Outside of France, where leeks are a central ingredient in many soups, stews, sauces and braises, I rarely meet anyone as passionate about leeks as I am. Until, that is, my recent encounter with a wistful grocery store clerk.
I think of her later in the day as I slowly braise the leeks as a way of celebrating the first chilly evening of a new season. Lamb shanks and butternut squash from a farm stand go in next. I brown the lamb shanks, letting them release their rich, almost gamey flavor on top of the leeks. The squash, cubes of sunset orange, will add more sweetness. I find chives and fresh parsley, chop one of the garden’s last tomatoes and I’m on my way.
A stew inspired, in part, by somewhere in the world I’ve never been, a Romanian woman I never knew, and the interpreted memories of a granddaughter far from home.
Braised Lamb Shanks with Leeks and Butternut Squash
Like all stews this one is best made a day ahead of time. Cook at least several hours before serving. Serve with a good crusty bread.
1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 medium thin leeks, cut in half lengthwise, tough greens on the top discarded, washed and dried and cut into 1-inch pieces
4 cloves garlic, 2 left whole and 2 finely chopped
4 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper or crumbled red chile pepper Salt and freshly ground black pepper About 1/2 cup flour
2 large or 3 medium lamb shanks, about 3 pounds, cut into 1-inch pieces*
1 butternut squash, peeled, with core and seeds removed, cut into 1-inch cubes, about 2 pounds
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup thinly fresh basil
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper or 1 small crumbled red chile pepper with or without seeds
1 cup red wine
3 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
*Ask your butcher to cut the shanks into small 1-inch pieces.
In a large pot heat 1 tablespoon canola oil and ½ tablespoon olive oil over low heat. Add the leeks, garlic, and scallions and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 minutes. Add half the cinnamon, cumin, red pepper, salt, and pepper and cook another 2 minutes. Remove the onion mixture to a plate and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 275 degrees.
Place the flour on a large plate and season liberally with salt and pepper. Lightly dredge the lamb shanks in the seasoned flour.
Heat the remaining oils over high heat. Brown the shanks on all sides, for about 5 minutes, or until golden brown. Add the squash cubes, the remaining cinnamon, cumin and cayenne, and half the parsley and basil; stir well. Add the reserved onion mixture. Add the wine and let simmer for 2 minutes. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Add salt and pepper and the bay leaf.
Cover and place on the middle shelf of the preheated oven. Cook for 1 1/2 hours. Taste for seasoning and adjust adding more cinnamon, cumin, salt, or pepper as needed. The lamb should be very tender and almost falling off the bone.
Place the stew back in the oven uncovered for another 30 minutes, or 30 minutes before serving, simmer it over very low heat on the stove top uncovered to reduce the sauce slightly.
Serve hot with the additional parsley and basil sprinkled on top. Serves 4.
This program aired on October 25, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.