My garden is finished for the year.  All that’s left are two giant piles of withered pumpkin vines and tomato plants, and four sad rows of brown corn stalks.  I left the corn up only because I love watching squirrels climb up the stalks to grab the last few half-matured ears, only to “bury” them in the middle of the yard under a handful of leaves.  It’s a miracle those critters survive at all.

Anyway, I already have grand plans for next year’s garden, which will not include tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, or any of the other crops that we’ve been eating for weeks on end (don’t worry; I’ll come back to reality next spring after eating cardboard tomatoes for a few months).  Instead, the garden of my dreams will feature okra, so my gumbo doesn’t have to rely on that nasty frozen stuff (oh, and don’t forget fried okra… yum); green beans, which I could eat steamed with a little butter every day and not get sick of them for a week; blueberry bushes (yes, I know you can’t grow blueberries in North Dakota, but wouldn’t it be awesome to have your own blueberry bush?); and leeks, just because I think they would be a fun challenge.

This fall, in fact, someone at church gave me a bag of home-grown leeks from her garden–petite, tender little leeks with hardly any silt in them.  At first I was going to try a new recipe for lentil-leek soup, but I ended up going with a chicken-leek casserole that my mom made for us once.

This casserole (oops, I have to learn to start saying “hot dish” now) is relatively simple, and its texture is creamy and rich with lots of flavor.  The only downside is that it needs to chill for at least 4 hours before baking; on the other hand, that makes it a nice dish to prepare ahead of time for company or to take to someone in need of a hot meal.  It can be eaten on its own, but I would suggest serving it over hot rice to make it more filling and to complement the rich flavors.

Chicken-Leek Casserole (based on this recipe)
Time:  45 minutes, plus 4 to 24 hours for chilling
Serves 6

2 lb. leeks
1 T. olive oil
12 oz. boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into thin strips
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup whipping cream (I used half-and-half, but cream is best)
1/4 to 1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup soft (fresh) bread crumbs (about 1 slice bread)

Trim and root ends from leeks; remove several inches from the tops and any top outer leaves (I freeze these scraps for making vegetable or chicken stock).  Halve leeks lengthwise.  Clean thoroughly under cold running water to remove any sand.  Chop into 1/4-inch-thick slices.

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat.  Add leeks; cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 to 5 minutes or just until tender.  Remove from skillet; set aside.

In the same skillet, cook and stir chicken strips for 3 to 5 minutes or until no longer pink on outside.  Add wine.  Bring mixture just to boiling; reduce heat.  Cook, uncovered, for 4 to 5 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated, stirring occasionally.  Add whipping cream and salt (if using half-and-half, add slowly, whisking constantly, to prevent curdling).  Return to boiling.  Cook and stir about 3 minutes more or until slightly thickened.  Add sliced leeks to chicken mixture.  Pour into a lightly greased 1-quart au gratin dish or casserole.  Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to 24 hours.

Preheat oven to 400 F.  Sprinkle cheese and bread crumbs over casserole.  Bake, uncovered, for 20 to 25 minutes or until heated through and golden brown on top.  Serve over hot cooked rice, if desired.