THE ART OF ITALIAN DINING
This is the food I grew up on.
Gratinated, braised, cooked with sausages and poured over polenta, fried, paired with sautéed spinach and prosciutto, tossed with improbable pasta dishes and even eaten raw with ‘Pinzimonio’ a word we use in Italy to describe the process of dipping and eating raw vegetables in extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.
Regardless of the form or preparation, leeks have always been part of my life as well as of my culture, (leeks for Tuscany is what penutbutter is for America) which explains the endless love I have for this understated vegetable. I will never forget being woken up by the smell of the leeks sizzling in butter on a Sunday morning.
It was like ending a dream to immediately start a new one.
And that is why, when I was asked to join Jan D’Atri on NBC last week, I decided to bring with me some pasta, pancetta and a couple of leeks. The result was a phenomenal dish: ‘Tagliatelle with Baised Leeks, Pancetta and Thyme” (Recipe below..)
Leeks have long been treasured in Europe and the Mediterranean where became a cooking staple, prized for their warm and oniony flavor when cooked, and their almost buttery flavor when chopped and sautéed.
A kissing cousin of garlic and onion, with a sweeter and more subdued flavor, the leek is eminently versatile, though sadly underappreciated, at least in America.
But thank to chefs like Charleen Badman of FnB, whose ‘Leek Gratin topped with Mozzarella and Fried Egg’ won ‘Best Dishes in The Country’ by Food&Wine magazine, Americans are slowly jumping on the leek bandwagon and realizing the great potentials of the often-overlooked leek.
Its history is also quite impressive. In fact, leeks are one of the few ingredients that were considered a fundamental source of nutrition during periods of famine of the Middle Ages. Leeks have been consumed since ancient times: even if we do not have the exact date of when they discovered, there is no doubt that they were cultivated already 4,000 years ago along the banks of the Nile, as illustrated in the hieroglyphics inside the pyramids. Even the workers who built the giant buildings ate, among other things, leeks and onions.
From the Nile Valley, leeks spread to the Mediterranean coasts, becoming extremely popular in ancient Rome, where the Roman Emperor Nero was given the nickname “il porrofago” (or leek eater) for his habit of eating a lot of leeks to clear his voice.
Commonly divided by harvest seasons, summer leeks are generally smaller than winter leeks, which are more strongly flavored. However, their season starts around October and goes through May reaching its peak in January, making this mellow vegetable perfect for numerous types of preparations, the most common one being in winter soups and pastas.
But probably one of my favorite and surely most original use for leeks is reported by an ancient legend; On the eve of a battle against the Saxons, Saint David advised the Welsh to wear leeks on their hats to make them stand out from their enemies. After a grand victory, the leeks became one of the symbols of the Welsh, who wore hats with leeks on Saint David’s Day.
I have to be honest: With this recipe I have not been as creative as I could have been (or at least that is what Saint David would say..) . However, unlike him, I am not asking you to adorn your headpieces with veggies.
Rather, I wanted to express the simple complexity of this wonderful vegetable and making you taste the real flavor of it.
So, now that we are all on the same page, get into the kitchen, cut some Pancetta up, make some fresh Tagliatelle, call a few friends over and enjoy this simple and tasteful dish that will make you regret not having discovered leeks before.
TAGLIATELLE CON PORRI, PANCETTA e TIMO
Tagliatelle (or Pappardelle) – 10 ounce
5 big leeks, outer leaves trimmed back, washed
A few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked
Sea Salt and freshly ground white pepper
12 slices of Pancetta sliced thinly
2 handfuls freshly grated Parmesan plus extra for serving
½ Cup of heavy cream
Halve the leeks lengthways and cut them julienne style. Heat a wide saucepan, add a splash of oil and a knob of butter, and when you hear a gentle sizzling add the leeks and pancetta. Move the leeks around so every piece gets coated. After the leeks are soft and lost their water add salt and pepper.
Pour in a glass of cooking water from the pasta and the heavy cream. Cook for 10-15 minutes until the leeks are soft and cooked through, and the sauce becomes ticker
Boil the pasta in hot, salted water and once cooked strain it keeping it moist and to the pan with the leeks sauce. Add the thyme leaves and stir so that the pappardelle are completely coated with the sauce.
Plate and complete the dish with a generous serving of Parmesan cheese.
When choosing leeks at the market, look for firm, straight, dark green leaves and white necks. Avoid yellowed or wilted leaves and cracked or bruised bulbs. Fresh leeks should be stored unwashed and untrimmed in the refrigerator where they will keep fresh for between one or two weeks. Try wrapping them loosely in a plastic bag to help them retain moisture, or store them in the freezer for up to three months. Cooked leeks are very perishable and will only stay fresh for about two days.