I love me some leeks. They’re oniony but mild, savory, and always delicious. The noble leek is the national symbol of Wales (along with the daffodil, and that really cool dragon on their flag), and the Welsh wear leeks on St. David’s Day (March 1st). Attached to their clothes. I mean, they don’t make shirts out of them or anything, but they like leeks enough to pin them to themselves and walk around smelling of onions for religious purposes. I don’t claim to understand it, people, I just provide information.
Because they are inherently delicious, a simple saute of leeks in butter has the potential to make a believer out of a person, and there’s a distinct possibility that at the beginning of March you’ll affix some produce to yourself and try to develop an interest in rugby, so do consider yourself warned. They’re THAT good. How do you make that even better? Serve them over pasta.
I am admittedly of the opinion that most things are better over pasta. And I don’t apologize. So without further ado, pappardelle with leeks.
The first thing to do is clean your leeks. If you’ve never cooked with leeks, DO NOT BE INTIMIDATED. Leeks are deceptively easy to clean. You need five of them for this dish, so you’ll get plenty of practice. Leeks like to grow in loose, sandy soil, so grit gets trapped between the layers of onion-like, leeky goodness. You also only want to eat the white and light green parts, as they are tender–the dark green parts of the leaves are kind of woody and inedible. So what do you do? In order to prevent wasting deliciousness and get at as much of the heart of the leek as possible, you need to hack into the leek. Upward, from where the dark green starts, at a pretty sharp angle. Your knife should be positioned something like this:
Once you’ve got your vampire stakes sharpened, cut them in half lengthwise and put them in a large bowl of water. I do recommend swishing them around, changing the water once and swishing them again but literally, if you put them in water and swish, the water will do the work for you and pull the grit out.
And then seriously, you can let them hang out in the water for however long it takes for you to get to the cooking part.
Next, start working on the bread crumbs. Once you get used to this recipe you can certainly work on both parts of this dish at the same time, but bread crumbs can be tricky to work with as they can go in the space of about twenty seconds from golden-toasty to burnt beyond recognition, so unless you’re used to working with bread crumbs, do the parts of the dish separately. Anyway.
First, take a handful of dried mushrooms. You want ones that are strong and really…you know…mushroomy. Sometimes ‘shrooms can be a little fruity, but for this you want something with a flavor that gets in yo’ face. You can pretty much always find dried shiitakes in the stores (yes, even in the ‘burg, people, check the produce departments) so they’re fine. I had some beautiful dried porcini on hand, so those were what I used.
Chop them up. They’re dried, so they come to pieces pretty quickly. And then? Into a pan with some olive oil, a few (as in, two) cloves of garlic and two healthy sprigs of fresh rosemary.
Since garlic can also turn ugly on you pretty quickly, keep this at medium heat and keep an eye on it. Once the garlic starts to brown and you really smell the rosemary, put in about a cup of bread crumbs. Of course, use salt and pepper to taste, but go easy on the salt as the bread and/or prepackaged breadcrumbs probably have a decent amount of salt in them already.
Here’s where the debate comes in: food purists will say that you should grind your own breadcrumbs out of stale bread. Less fastidious types will want to use canned bread crumbs they can get at the grocery store. I’ve made this both ways, and frankly, fresh breadcrumbs are better but canned are fine. If texture matters a great deal to you, remember that fresh crumbs will probably create a more nubbly texture while the store-bought will be more uniform, as the chances are pretty good you, personally, won’t grind the crumbs quite as small as a giant machine. Just please…for the love of all that is holy…use the unseasoned ones if you go canned. Saute all this together until the bread crumbs turn golden and toasty, and then put them aside until you need them. And remember to pull the whole rosemary sprigs out of the crumbs before you try to use them.
(Note: don’t leave them in the pan, either, as the residual heat of the pan could easily turn the bread crumbs from golden deliciousness to smoking burnt mess pretty easily. So put them in a bowl and set them aside. You’ll be better off for it.)
And so, back to the leeks. They have been trimmed. They have been cleaned. They have hung out in the water for however long it’s taken. And now? It’s time.
The first thing to do is pull them out of the water and let them drain while you chop the garlic and herbs in which you will cook them and if you haven’t figured this out by now, if you’re not a fan of garlic you probably won’t eat much at my house. But I digress. Two more cloves of garlic, another two sprigs of rosemary (or three, if you just can’t help yourself) and a few sprigs of thyme (maybe a teaspoon’s worth of dried, two of fresh) will be fine. I’ve often heard people ask how they should chop fresh herbs since they don’t know what to do with them. Here, have a look:
These are not scary things. They’re leaves. If you’re not trying to achieve a special “look” with an herb, if you don’t want a chiffonade or need to preserve the way the leaf meets the stem for some reason, then pull them off their twigs, pile them all together, and (here’s my secret) run your knife through them. They get smaller each time you apply your knife! Promise. Then cut the leeks into roughly-quarter-inch slices. Get a very large pan going with some butter and some olive oil (best of both worlds–why not?) and put the leeks and garlic and herbs in, as well as a sprinkling of red pepper flakes (to taste, you can leave them out if you’d like) and salt and pepper.
After a few minutes (five or eight or so, depending on how soft the leeks are looking, as you want them to look fairly soft) you can put in some liquid. If I have a dry white wine on hand, opened yet unfinished, I’ll put that in…though I often don’t, because A) I am a red wine girl and B) an opened and unfinished bottle of wine? In my house? Not so much. Again, if it’s in, it tastes better but if you don’t have any (or would like to choose not to use wine), it’s pretty well delicious without. You can always put in some vinegar if you want the acidic bite that wine would provide, but carefully consider your vinegar flavor. Try to keep it relatively mild–champagne or white wine vinegar are always fine options, and don’t use more than about a quarter-cup. If you do opt for the wine, you don’t need more than a half-cup, and then finish this step with some vegetable broth if you’re keeping it vegetarian, or chicken stock if you’re not. How much stock do you use? Remember, you’re not making soup, you’re not making broth, you just want to give the leeks enough liquid to hang out in. Cover and cook another 15-ish minutes, until the leeks are nice and soft, and then uncover and let some of the steam evaporate.
While the leeks cook, you should also cook your pasta, so at some point get a pot of boiling water going on the stove. And a word about pappardelle:
Pappardelle are wide ribbons of pasta that can be viciously difficult to find in stores. If you don’t have the benefit of a live-in pasta maker
then I recommend one of three things:
1) Get a pasta machine and learn how to do it so you never have to encounter this situation again.
2) Look for fresh pasta sheets (i.e., fresh lasagna) and cut those into ribbons.
3) Use tagliatelle or fettucine or whatever wide-ish noodle the good people of Barilla or Ronzoni or Weis Markets have already prepared for you. The main point is, don’t serve this with squat noodles, like rotini or penne. Go for long, and as wide as possible. Leeks are assertive, so you need a pasta that can stand up to them.
And so, once you’ve cooked and drained your pasta, put it into the very large pan the leeks have cooked in, and mix your leeks and pasta all together. Pour that into a bowl and top with some-but-not-all of the bread crumbs; give yourself and your fellow diners the ability to supplement their individual bread crumb supply, particularly when you consider that the longer the crumbs are in contact with the liquid the leeks are in, the softer they’ll get. Part of the fun of this dish comes from the way the different elements of this dish impart different textures and characters, so you don’t want to dump all the bread crumbs on there and lose their crunch. Top with some parmigiano reggiano (or any other hard cheese), and use a vegetable peeler to shave the cheese off in strips if you like how that looks. Serve this with a salad and some braised kale. Yeah. Dig it.