Vegan Leek Pasta

When I saw this recipe and article in The New York Times, I knew it would be a good fit for my next post.

One, it uses the whole leek–whites and greens–in one recipe. Many recipes only use the whites and light green parts. Those who are committed to maximizing the value of their ingredients and minimizing waste will hang onto the greens for making a vegetable stock. I should be one of those people. We should all strive to be that person. The bag of vegetable scraps in my freezer that was started before my son was born and probably lasted well into his third year?….that showed that I have a bit of work to do to be that person.

Two, this recipe is vegan. And in 2021, I decided to incorporate more vegan meals into my life. After years of professional development and initiation into the world of goals and objectives, I decided to set a couple of personal goals in the New Year. Based on research and recommendations, I felt it was important to pick something measurable and truly achievable–even if the achievement would be modest. In this case, I want to make sure I spent one day each month eating completely vegan. To my credit, it’s common for me to have days without meat. And I certainly aim for more vegan days/meals. But for me, it is a true challenge to spend a whole day without dairy products. I want to face head-on the discomfort I feel when I see charts of the environmental footprint of different food categories, with cheese up toward the top.

Source: Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eater’s Guide 2011

Two caveats: 1) While I give this recipe a 5 out of 5 for meeting my sustainability goals, it only gets a 3 out of 5 for flavor–it needs a bit added to give it any zing. 2) I found the recipe a little difficult to follow, as written, in NYT Cooking, especially with all the elements and tools needed. I organized it differently below, including a list of supplies and incorporating the useful tips I found in the comment section from other readers as well. With some proper planning and staging, the preparation can go smoothly.

Vegan Leek Pasta
Adapted from The New York Times Cooking

Cutting board
Bowl (for rinsing grit from leeks)
Zesting tool
Large pot (for boiling greens and pasta)
Measuring cup, scoop, or bowl (for reserving pasta water)
Frying pan or saucepan (one that will allow for the oil to be at a depth for frying leek whites in batches)
Slotted spoon
Plate lined with paper towels

Kosher salt and black pepper
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, and additional seasonings to taste
1 to 1.25 pounds leeks (2 to 3 medium)
1/2 Cup olive oil
1 pound bucatini (fettuccine or linguine or even pappardelle are acceptable substitutes)
1 lemon, zested
Nutritional yeast, to taste

Here’s the gist: you’re boiling the leek greens, pan frying the leek whites, and boiling the pasta. Your sauce comes from a combination of the greens, the pasta water, and the fried leek oil. You can do each step at different times and in advance, but it can be a waiting game to get it all to come together and up to temperature. I recommend frying the leek whites while the greens boil (as it takes awhile). Boil the pasta last.

1. Prepare your leeks: remove the roots off the white ends, and cut to separate the bottom light green/white part from the greens.

Slice the greens lengthwise to make it easy to separate and clean. Submerge in cold water and swish a few times to remove the grit.

For the whites, you want to end up with small, roughly 2-inch matchstick-sized slices. You can arrive at those a number of ways, starting crosswise or lengthwise. I think lengthwise was probably the easiest.

Option 1.

Option 2.

Rinse the whites until they are clean, and get them nice and dry in a dish towel.

2. Cook the greens and whites in their respective pans — at the same time if you can mange it, but either step can be done in advance or independently.

Once the pasta/greens water is boiling, add the leek greens. Cook about 8 minutes, until the greens are tender. Remove them with tongs to a blender. Leave water on high heat to boil for pasta.

Meanwhile, get your frying pan ready with oil set over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the leek strips in batches (I did 3), cooking and stirring frequently until some of the pieces start to get golden. Remove them from the pan with the slotted spoon, leaving as much oil behind has possible. Drain on paper towel-lined plate.

One thing in the instructions I appreciated was when it said that the leeks won’t cook evenly and it’s not you! The leeks continue to cook a bit longer after being removed from the pan, so you don’t need to wait until every single piece looks brown–otherwise you risk burning some.

As I continued to to each next batch, I got bolder about letting the leeks go darker (see right column above).

Season with salt. Set oil aside to cool.

3. Cook pasta. Add to the boiling water. Lower heat slightly and stir occasionally as you cook the pasta until it is not quite al dente (I went about 2 minutes less than the package instructions).

Before draining the pasta in a colander in the sink, pull out 1 Cup of pasta water. Return the pasta to the pot.

4. Prepare sauce. To the blender with the leek greens, add the leek oil, 2/3 Cup of the pasta water, a generous pinch of salt and pepper, red pepper flakes and other seasoning that fits the Italian flavor profile.

Blend ingredients together into a creamy sauce.

Pour into the pot with the pasta, stir, and taste. You may need additional pasta water and seasoning to achieve the desired texture and flavor (the toppings add a lot of flavor).

Serve in a bowl or on a plate, and top with a little lemon zest and juice, nutritional yeast, and frizzled leek.

Take pride in being that person, and enjoy.