By Alexa Weibel, The New York Times
Boredom often breeds innovation, especially in the kitchen. This pasta was the result of a life lived in lockdown, with ample time to spare and a heightened desire to use ingredients to their full potential.
When Tara Holland, a friend and professional recipe developer, mentioned puréeing leek greens for the base of a risotto she’d been perfecting, she inspired a true light-bulb moment. Anyone who has worked in a professional kitchen understands how to optimize ingredients, squirreling away vegetable scraps for stock, but the concept of blending firm, fibrous leek greens into an edible product was intriguing. Could they truly be coaxed into submission?
The answer is yes. If you boil your leek greens until tender — which can be done in the time it takes to cook pasta — then set them in a high-power blender with some olive oil, they’ll emulsify into a remarkably creamy sauce, as silky as butternut squash purée. (It’s also a good reminder that there are infinite ways to achieve a creaminess without cream.)
But before you can start your sauce, you’ll need to start with prep. After the leek greens are set aside, this recipe maximizes the remaining leek stem in two ways: Frying julienned leek whites provides crispy, salty tendrils for garnish, and leaves behind a fragrant, potent leek oil that is later blended with the leek greens to create the sauce.
To complete the dish, boil the leek greens along with the pasta, and reserve some of that starchy pasta water to use in the sauce. Blend your mild, faintly sweet leek greens with the assertive leek oil, then toss the silky sauce with the pasta, thinning with more pasta water to taste. Top with a tangle of crispy leeks, and you have a pasta with a sweet, creamy sauce offset by a textural garnish.
Though this recipe doesn’t take long, it does not feel fast; to some, it may even qualify as fussy. But it’s about exploring new techniques and extracting everything you can from a few ingredients, each result a small triumph. It’s about finding pleasure in the process as much as in the results.
Recipe: Vegan Creamy Leek Pasta
Yield: 4 servings
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 3 medium leeks (about 1 to 1 1/4 pounds total)
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 pound bucatini, fettuccine or linguine
- 1 lemon
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high.
2. Meanwhile, prepare your leeks: Trim 1/2 inch off both ends, then cut each leek crosswise, separating the bottom third of the white portion from the top two-thirds of light and dark leek greens. Halve the greens lengthwise, wash them, then set them aside.
3. Halve your leek whites lengthwise, cut them crosswise into 2-inch segments, then slice those segments thinly lengthwise to create matchsticks. (If you notice any grit in the sliced leek whites, wash them thoroughly, transfer them to a dish towel, squeezing to remove excess moisture, then spread them out to dry.)
4. In a small, deep saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high and line a baking sheet with paper towels. Working in three to four batches for even cooking, add about 1/4 of the white leek strips and cook, stirring frequently, until golden, about 4 minutes. The key here is to keep residual cooking in mind: Since your delicate leeks will continue cooking after being removed from the hot oil, you want to pull them from the hot oil when about a third of each batch is fully golden, a third is lightly golden and another third is still green. (They won’t cook perfectly evenly; it’s not you, it’s them and the nature of cooking.) Remove them swiftly, using a slotted spoon and tilting the saucepan to transfer the leeks to the paper towel-lined plate. Season to taste with salt. Repeat with the remaining batches. Set the oil aside to cool.
5. Add the pasta and leek greens to the boiling water, reduce the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is just shy of al dente, about 8 minutes. Reserve 1 cup pasta cooking water. Using tongs, transfer the leek greens to a blender, then pour the pasta into a colander set in the sink.
6. Add the reserved leek oil to the leek greens, along with 2/3 cup pasta water and a generous pinch each of salt and pepper, and blend until creamy. Add the sauce to the pot and stir in the pasta. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and add more pasta water, if desired, to thin the sauce. Divide among plates and sprinkle with frizzled leeks. Grate fresh lemon zest on top, if desired, then squeeze with lemon. Serve immediately.
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