Thanksgiving Makeover Continued: Creamy Leek Gratin with Breadcrumbs and Bacon

Yesterday we enjoyed Lior’s Spiced Cranberry Chutney With Apricots and Pecans. Today I offer another brilliant holiday recipe from Chicago chef Paul Kahan. His assignment was a tough one.

I had him retool creamed onions, probably the stodgiest of all the Thanksgiving side dishes. And precisely because his task was difficult, I was the especially pleased with the result. Paul transformed stodgy creamed onions into sexy Leek Gratin with Breadcrumbs and Bacon.

Here’s how much I love these leeks. When I test recipes I usually take only a bite or two and then I’m done. Not so with Paul’s dish. And for dinner that night I made a meal of leek gratin. It was that good.

And then there’s Paul’s light option for leek gratin that I find especially clever. He replaces the cream and cheese in the dish by pureeing some of the leek with skim milk and Greek yogurt. Now here’s a guy I want helping me eat lighter, better.

When I asked Paul what inspired his dish, he said it was simple. “When given a choice between Creamed Pearl Onions and my Creamy Leek Gratin with Breadcrumbs and Bacon, wouldn’t you opt for the latter?”  Good point! He uses just enough cream, cheese, and bacon to make the dish taste good without taking it decadent.

Paul Kahan grew up around his father’s delicatessen and smokehouse, so it’s a huge influence in how he cooks and thinks about food. He is executive chef and partner at four Chicago restaurants—The Publican, Big Star, Avec, and Blackbird. He’s also a 2010 James Beard Outstanding Chef of the year nominee.

Paul Kahan’s Creamy Leek Gratin with Breadcrumbs and Bacon

Serves 6 as a side dish

This recipe easily doubles. Simply cook leeks in a heavy roasting pan over 2 burners (or in 2 batches in the large skillet) and use a large skillet to cook breadcrumbs and bacon. Bake in a13- by 9-inch pan.

2 generous pounds leeks
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper
1/2 cup each: heavy cream and grated Gruyere cheese
1 tablespoon each: chopped fresh dill and parsley
4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into small dice
1 cup fresh bread crumbs from a dense French-style loaf
1 garlic clove, crushed

Using scissors, clip the leeks’ dark outer leaves. Remove root ends, quarter leeks lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces. Soak leeks in 2 changes of water to remove grit; drain well.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add leeks; saute, seasoning with salt and pepper, until tender, about 10 minutes. Transfer to medium bowl and mix in cream, cheese, dill, and parsley. Wipe out skillet and return to burner over medium-low heat. Add bacon and fry until crisp, 5 to 7 minutes; transfer to paper towels with a slotted spoon to drain and then stir into leeks. Turn leek mixture into a 9-inch pie plate or similar size pan.

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 450 degrees. Meanwhile, heat a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Toss remaining oil with breadcrumbs, garlic, and a light sprinkling of salt and pepper. Add to skillet and toast until crisp and golden brown, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle breadcrumbs over leeks. Bake until bubbly and golden, 12 to15 minutes. Serve.

To Lighten: Omit bacon, cream, and cheese. Increase leeks to a generous 2 1/2 pounds and cook as in Creamy Leek Gratin with Breadcrumbs and Bacon. Remove 1 cup of the leeks and puree with 1/4 cup each: 0% plain Greek yogurt and skim milk; stir into sautéed leeks. Continue with recipe sprinkling leeks with breadcrumbs and baking.

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