Rachel Roddy’s recipe for pasta with leeks, mushrooms, thyme and soft cheese
Leeks are hard to come by in Rome, so when I do find some on a shelf or stall, there is even more reason to think: “Lovely leek.” Which is how Simon Hopkinson describes them in his book The Vegetarian Option, and an alliteration so neat and right that it stuck and now flashes up every time I see one. And, because thoughts are like dominoes, lovely leeks could well remind me of the lovely Linda mug I shared a desk with for a week or so, many years ago; and of its owner, too, who was also lovely, with smooth hands (and a pot of hand cream on her desk) and a sister who was an optician in Barnes. It’s funny the things we remember.
Hopkinson also calls leeks the “softly softly” of the onion family, which isn’t just a good description of their flavour and nature, but is also a reminder of how to cook them for soups and sauces. Softly softly, and don’t forget slowly slowly. Which is where Hopkinson meets Anna Del Conte and her method for cooking leeks for pasta or rice. This is also great, because it feels like two favourite cookery writers are having a chat and swapping advice in my kitchen. First, though, clean the leek, trim away the dark welly end and roots, then split it lengthways, but not all the way, so it stays intact and fans out like a peacock’s tail, allowing all the grit can be washed away. This central split also means the leek then cuts easily into half moons.
Del Conte’s way starts the sliced leek in a mix of olive oil and butter, then, after lowering the heat (which is important), a piece of crumpled greaseproof paper is pressed on top. By doing this, the steam is trapped, closely, but without pressure, creating a highly effective, steamy braise under which leeks – and mushrooms for that matter – soften, and turn buttery in looks and flavour. Cooked this way, and seasoned generously with salt and black pepper, leeks and mushrooms provide a simple and tasty condiment for pasta long and short, dried and fresh (most shapes work). Alternatively, stir a beaten mixture of soft cheese (robiola, Philadelphia or soft goat’s), grated parmesan and pasta cooking water into the vegetables, which makes for a more luscious version.
This pasta dish is a reminder of the value of pasta cooking water, well seasoned with salt and cloudy with starch that has seeped from the pasta as it boils. Here, it’s used both to loosen the sort of cheese mixture and for the final mixing, when just a little (I find a small coffee or espresso cup full is a good measure – and vehicle – to carry the pasta water from pan to mixing pan) helps ease the consistency of the final dish. You may want a bit more grated parmesan on top, a glass of wine, a second helping, a second glass of wine, some bread for wiping the dish, a green salad, more cheese and then paradise cake.
Pasta with leeks, mushrooms, thyme and soft cheese
4 tbsp olive oil
1 large leek, cleaned and cut into rings
250g mushrooms (field, button or chestnut), sliced
Salt and black pepper
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 heaped tbsp soft cheese (optional)
1 heaped tbsp grated parmesan (optional)
450g long dried pasta (linguine, tagliatelle, penne, fusilli …)
Bring a pan of water to a boil for the pasta. Put the oil, butter and leek in a deep saute pan, and cook on a medium-low heat until the leek starts to wilt. Add the mushrooms, a pinch of salt and the thyme and cook, stirring, for a few minutes more.
Press a piece of greaseproof paper on top of the vegetables, turn down the heat and leave to braise/steam for 10-15 minutes, until the vegetables are tender and collapsed. Once done, put to one side and keep warm.
Salt the boiling water, stir, then add the pasta and cook until al dente. If you are adding cheese, in small bowl mix the soft cheese and parmesan, scoop out a little of the cooking water while the pasta cooks, and mix to a thick cream. Stir this through the vegetables.
When the pasta is done, drain it, saving a little more of its water, or lift it directly into the vegetable pan, then toss, adding a little more pasta cooking water to loosen the texture, if you think it needs it.