How to Give a Supporting Winter Vegetable a Starring Role


Faith Willinger

Leeks are one of my favorite winter vegetables. They rarely get a starring role in most recipes, but since the Innocenti brothers, who supply me with fresh, seasonal, organic produce, have such wonderful leeks (porri in Italian) they get major attention in my kitchen. Torquato, the brothers' father, who taught me all about Tuscan vegetable cooking—he recited recipes when he sold his vegetables—told me that leeks were the winter's asparagus. I was inspired. I blanched some, and then baked them with Parmigiano and extra virgin. Sautéed, then combined with Parmigiano and eggs for a frittata, possibly topped with real balsamico. Or my favorite, below, pasta with leeks and lemon zest.

    • 4 leeks
    • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    • sea salt
    • freshly ground black pepper
    • 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
    • 1 tablespoon minced parsley
    • 14 to 16 ounces pasta
    • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano

Clean the leeks, removing bruised outer leaves and roots. Split each leek in half lengthwise and rinse carefully to remove any dirt between the leaves. Slice leeks into thin half-rings.

Put the leeks in a large skillet, drizzle with two tablespoons extra virgin, stir to coat and sauté over medium heat until leeks become somewhat transparent and begin to brown. Season with salt and pepper, add two cups of water and simmer over medium-low heat until water has evaporated and leeks are tender. Add the lemon zest and parsley.

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Bring a pot of five to six quarts of water to a rolling boil, add two or three tablespoons sea salt and the pasta.

Cook the pasta until it still offers considerable resistance to the tooth, about three quarters of the recommended cooking time. Drain pasta, reserving two cups of the pasta water.

Add the pasta to the leeks in the skillet, adding 1/2 cup pasta cooking water. Cook over high heat, stirring (or flipping the pasta like professional chefs—practice with a wet sponge until you've got the knack) until pasta is done. Add more pasta water if sauce becomes to dry, 1/4 of a cup at a time.

Drizzle with remaining two tablespoons extra virgin, top with Parmigiano.