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.
SPAGHETTI WITH LEEKS & CREAM: (serves 2-3)
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
– 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?).