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spaghetti with leeks & cream

In pasta, travel, winter, year-round on 6 July, 2011 at 6:36 pm

I’ve been in a cooking rut recently. Call it post-holiday funk, or cooking-for-one blues or whatever, but I’ve been finding myself coming home and wanting to curl up with the cat or a hot water bottle (both would be too warm!) instead of hanging out in the kitchen all night.  So for the last couple weeks since I’ve been back from holiday I’ve been eating mostly the same thing over and over again.*

I don’t know if it’s just me, but when I get in a cooking rut I find I need to ease out of it. Gently, slowly, making things that are simple and delicious. Things you could cook in an unfamiliar kitchen, things you could cook when you’re in mourning, but things that taste good enough to get you excited about cooking again. This is one of those things.

 This is one of those alarmingly simple dishes you can make with your eyes closed.  All you need is butter, cream, a leek, some spaghetti and white wine. And some nice hard cheese like parmesan or pecorino, and a bit of black pepper. If you’re like me, you’ll have these things on hand even if you haven’t been organised enough to do proper grocery shopping on the weekend. And if you’re missing one or two things like cream or spaghetti they’re things that are easy enough to get at the dairy.

And because it’s so simple you really don’t need any particular skill to make this dish – though a bit of timing** will help it all come together snappily at the end.

And delicious: it needs to be. When I first came upon this recipe, from the fairly great Serious Eats column French in a Flash – I made it one night… and then for lunch the next day… and then at least two or three more times that week for dinner. Something about the melty onion-ness of the leeks, the familiar slippery texture of the pasta, the cream and white wine and cheese all coming together – it’s not out of the ordinary, but it feels a little bit more special than, say, two-minute noodles or macaroni and cheese (though I am in no way dissing mac and cheese!).

Over time I’ve made a few very minor changes to the recipe, like using spaghetti instead of angel hair (purely because it’s what I usually have lying around), and slicing the leeks crosswise instead of julienning them (because to be honest, when I’m cooking this I’m usually looking for the quickest option possible) but other than that this is pretty close to the original.

adapted only very slightly from this recipe from French In a Flash/Serious Eats

the white and light green part of 1 decent-sized leek 
– butter
– half a bottle of white wine, 1/4 – 1/3 cup reserved
– 1/4 – 1/3 cup cream
– roughly 150-200g spaghetti
– parmesan, pecorino, or a similar hard cheese

Thinly slice the leek and separate out the pieces. Melt a decent-sized chunk of butter in a wide saute pan (ideally one you can cover with a lid) along with 2 tbsp water, then add the leeks, turn the heat all the way down to low, cover, cook gently for around 20 minutes until they’re soft and melty. Add more butter/water if the pan gets too dry; take the lid off if it’s getting too watery.

Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti, making sure the water’s really salty. Add the wine at the same time you add the spaghetti. Once it’s cooked, reserve a cupful of pasta water and drain.

In the last couple of minutes before the pasta’s done, add the reserved wine to the leeks, reduce a bit, then add the cream and cook just until the sauce is nice and hot. Add the drained spaghetti to the leeks, adding enough pasta water so the leeks, cream and wine create a nice silky sauce. Season with salt (if your pasta water was really salty you probably won’t need to add much, or any) and freshly ground black pepper. Top with plenty of grated parmesan and a touch of parsley.

Eat immediately. Make again for lunch the next day if you don’t have leftovers. And maybe make some for dinner later on in the week, but be careful. If you’re using this as a step up out of a cooking rut, you may find yourself stuck in a new one.

*Though it’s not all bad: when I get in a rut I revert to easy stuff and childhood comfort food (not too unusual, I guess). In my case that’s Japanese. So I’ve been eating a lot of rice and miso soup, and  ochazuke, and udon noodles with enoki mushrooms and spinach and shoyu tamago (though that’s more of a ramen thing.. I love them). Pretty good.  

**Nothing like the amazing coordination of the one-woman taco stand my mum and I visited on a side street in Puebla (couple hours outside of Mexico City).  It was late on a Monday night, we were in search of a feed, most of the restaurants we’d been recommended had closed, and we approached this lady cooking something over a big round flat metal plate, a few people milling about eating or waiting for their food. She was working fast, all abrupt movements, and it was hard to tell if she’d noticed us, or if we were simply gawking. She seemed angry almost, and then, finally, there was a brief, split second reprieve and she looked up and smiled, briefly but genuinely enough.

And from then on her movements seemed not brusque, but calculated and efficient: grabbing handfuls of masa and flattening it between two sheets of plastic in a wooden tortilla press, slapping thinly sliced meat on the hottest part of the grill, rapidly slicing with two knives as it cooked, while keeping an eye on the tortillas so that they didn’t burn. Turning the nopales (cactus!), slathering beans on tortillas, spooning out salsa with one hand while taking payment with the other (and I noticed in all the hustle she still wiped her hands on a wet rag each time she handled money, though admittedly who knows how clean that rag was. But hey. You don’t eat street food for the food hygiene). Every component of every person’s order all came together at the right time; nothing burned. This was a woman who knew what she was doing.

And it was damn good. Fresh corn tortilla, refried beans, bits of (I want to say) pork, cactus, salsa verde, avocado. Hot off the grill, and ready to eat, with a squeeze of lime. The cactus was tart and crisp yet slimy, but in a good, okra-y way. So good. I only wish I could recreate it at home (you see why I’m in such a cooking rut?).

  1. Cactus, aye? I’ve never tried okra either so can’t compare, but the whole operation sounds extremely impressive.

    The pasta looks just gorgeous – the perfect thing to get yourself back in the kitchen for. Leeks and cream and white wine, yum…

  2. I’ve been living by myself (housesitting) so feeling the same…I made a big bowl of kisir (Turkish bulghur wheat salad with tomato and pomegranate molasses) and have been eating that and things like crackers and hummus and omelettes…I’m going to try this soon.

  3. Simple & tasty suits me down to the ground. The last thing I feel like doing after spending the day (& night) cooking is even more cooking, even if it is just for me. I could happily make an exception for something as simple (& tasty) as this. Cheers very much for sharing :)

  4. Feeling very jet-lagged, and as I will be eating alone for the next three weeks, this looks like the perfect dish for me – I can see this being made a lot!!

    Sue xo

  5. I know exactly what you mean by easing yourself out of a cooking slump. I’m in a bit of one too, and I’m hoping Nigella’s poached chicken and lentils will do the trick tonight. This spaghetti looks beautiful in the bowl, twisted around like unruly hair.

  6. Easy comfort food is great for cooking ruts because it is satisfaction. I’m a huge fan of leeks and I love how cheap they are at the moment. There is something about leeks, cream and white wine that makes me weak at the knees. I creamy braised leeks it as a side dish for mothers day dinner and it was a hit. I don’t think I have had it with pasta before though. Love the taco lady post. I’ve yet to try okra or cactus.

  7. I love spaghetti but my nearest and dearest finds it too exhausting to eat. Can’t wait for the next time he is away so I can settle down with a big bowl of this. Takes me back to my single days when I might eat spaghetti for days on end. That Mexican sounds yummy although I admit I might skip the cactus. I know what you mean about a cooking rut – I’m in one myself. I realised the other day it’s because I’m missing the daily harvest from the back garden. Funnily enough there are plenty of leeks and I feel like I’ve overdosed on turnip and swede. Am bringing in the fennel this weekend though – time for a risotto!

  8. hungryandfrozen: if you’re ever in Mexico, look out for them… they’re different, but really tender and almost tart, a little bit special. I also later had them stewed, almost pickled, again really different but in a good way.

    Sasa: last time I was cooking for one I made omelettes almost every night for dinner so I know where you’re coming from! At least they’re good, and good for you… and the kisir sounds fantastic :)

    Nigel: though I don’t usually spend all day (and night!) cooking for other people I totally know the tired-don’t-want-to-cook feeling. Good to be able to whip up a few simple things :)

    Sue: Hope you recover from your jet lag soon!!

    Five Course Garden: Unruly hair! A bit how mine looks right now ;) Love the comparison. Ooh, poached chicken and lentils…

    Bunny Eats Design: I agree, love leeks too. creamy braised leeks sound so good, I will have to try it soon!

    Domestic Executive: funny how we adapt our own eating habits when sharing meals with others. I have a whole folder full of recipes of things to cook when I’m eating alone. Am envious of your garden bounty… the fennel + risotto sounds superb!

  9. Love Mexican but I have never got around to trying cactus. Now that pasta looks delicious, perfect warming, satisfying comfort food for Winter :)

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