Blue skies and warm, vegetal air means I’m just about ready to trade in rich, slow-cooked flavors for all things easy and bright.
But before I officially bid the cold farewell, I’m making this caramelized leek pasta, a perfectly transitional weeknight meal that sits comfortably on the cusp of winter and spring. Leeks—a darling of the allium family milder than onions and almost as sweet—get a last hurrah of low-and-slow cooking to coax out their subtle flavor, while fresh lemon, basil, and peas firmly pull this dish into the blossoming sunshine. My favorite part? A shot of dry vermouth that brings it all together. (If you don’t have vermouth, white wine works, too.)
I developed this recipe last year for Food52, and it quickly became a fan favorite. I tweaked this version ever-so-slightly, adding the peas and cutting down on the amount of pasta so there’s plenty of luscious sauce to go around. I also swapped lumache for farfalle, a pasta that’s often served with cream sauces and dotted with peas.
While I grew up with “bow ties,” farfalle actually means “butterflies,” and, in their fresh form, they’re one of Italy’s oldest egg pastas (in Emilia-Romagna, they’re called “strichetti”; instead of having two ruffled edges, these are smooth on all sides). As with many unfilled egg pastas, farfalle were the invention of resourceful housewives who repurposed their dough scraps, left over from making stuffed pastas like cappelletti, into something pretty. Eventually farfalle became so popular that they were made for their own sake. Today, both the fresh and dried versions are served with any number of condiments, though cream sauces and pasta salads are most common.
On a more personal note: Tomorrow is the start of Passover, so this is the last plate of pasta I’ll be eating for the next eight days. I’ve come to terms with this annual forced vacation, so next week I’ll be back with something a little different. And if you, too, are looking for a pre-Passover dish to go out with a bang, I’d say this one definitely makes the cut.
Chag sameach, happy Easter, Ramadan mubarak to all those celebrating!
If you make this recipe, I’d love for you to share it via email and send me a photo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media and tag @pastasocialclub. :-)
Caramelized Leek Pasta
For the breadcrumbs
1 large lemon
1 to 2 tablespoons (15 to 30 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup (60 grams) panko breadcrumbs
For the sauce
2 pounds (900 grams; about 4 medium) leeks, white and light green parts only (roots trimmed)
3 tablespoons (45 grams) unsalted butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup (60 ml) dry vermouth
1 cup (240 ml) heavy cream
1 cup (110 grams) fresh or frozen and thawed green peas
12 ounces (340 grams) farfalle, conchiglie, lumache, or pasta of choice
1 ounce (30 grams) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Fresh basil leaves, for serving
For the breadcrumbs
Zest half of the lemon into a medium bowl. Halve the lemon and juice half into a small bowl. Cut the remaining half of the lemon into wedges and reserve for serving.
In a medium skillet, warm the oil over medium-high heat. Add the panko and a generous pinch of salt and stir until the crumbs are well coated. Cook, stirring often, until golden, 2 to 4 minutes. Turn off the heat and continue to stir until the crumbs are browned to your liking. Transfer to the bowl with the lemon zest and stir to combine.
For the sauce
Slice the leeks into ¼-inch rounds. Transfer to a colander and run under cold water, agitating them a bit with your hands, to remove any sand between the layers. Pat dry with paper towels.
In a large sauté pan or Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the leeks, season with salt and pepper, and stir until coated. Cook until the leeks are jammy and golden around the edges, stirring often, 20 to 25 minutes. If the bottom of the pan starts to get dark, reduce the heat and add a splash of water to deglaze.
Pour in the vermouth, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, and simmer until the liquid has completely evaporated, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the cream and simmer until slightly thickened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the peas and cook for 1 minute more, then turn off the heat and season to taste.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, then season it generously with salt. Add the pasta and cook according to the package directions until just shy of al dente or to your liking. When the pasta’s almost ready, return the sauce to medium heat. Scoop out ¼ cup of pasta cooking water and stir it into the leek mixture.
Transfer the pasta directly to the sauce with a spider sieve (if you need to drain it, reserve 1 cup pasta cooking water first). Cook, stirring often, until the sauce thickens and the pasta is well coated, 1 to 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the lemon juice and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Loosen the sauce with more pasta water as needed and adjust seasoning to taste.
Divide the pasta among bowls and top with breadcrumbs and basil. Serve immediately, with lemon wedges for squeezing.
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This is absolutely delicious and very easy to make. This was the perfect spring dish for leeks from my garden and I made my own farfalle. Thank you, Meryl!
Oh my. Can't wait to get over passover to give it a try!