My favorite episode of Chef’s Table is the one featuring Massimo Bottura.
First of all, could he be more of a mensch?
Second of all, can we all just appreciate the fact that his secret to success is the woman by his side? And that he actually KNOWS it?
Even if you were to ignore the power couple at the center of the episode (and I’m not sure who I’m more smitten by, Massimo or Lara), it says so much about old school Italian cooking culture. I love how scandalized the town of Modena was by the way Massimo reinterpreted the region’s traditional dish: tortellini in broth.
Italian cooking is straight forward and simple. It involves very few ingredients, prepared in a style that has been passed down from nonna to nonna for generations. It’s fresh, not fancy. And above all, it’s not up for reinterpretation.
Take pesto, for instance.
At its core it’s a sauce made from herbs, nuts, garlic, cheese and olive oil. Some regions keep it classic, like the Genovese with basil and pine nuts. Others get a little funky, like the Calabrese who use hot peppers instead of green herbs for a fiery red sauce.
Like Massimo, I am a rebel who is incapable of sticking to a road map. Which is how I found myself throwing caution to the wind and making a pesto out of charred leeks.
That this 5-ingredient mixture I call pesto doesn’t have any cheese, or even any garlic, might make Italian grandmothers everywhere shake their fists at me from the grave.
But from where I’m sitting, far from the Mediterranean, it’s a pitch perfect combination. The char from a hot grill or cast iron skillet adds an unexpected layer of smokiness to the leeks. The heat also softens them, intensifying their sweetness and reducing the onion flavor to a floral background note.
You can use any herb you like, but I think fresh chives are a badass compliment, adding some of that onion bite you miss by cooking the leeks. Any nut also works, but I love the richness of toasted almonds.
Those who are new to gluten-free pasta cooking, should check out this guide and this list of my favorite brands. All others, feel free to use whatever regular noodles you like. Short shapes like rotini would also be great.
If you’re looking for a summer vegetarian dinner that’s FAS (fast as fuck), I highly recommend this charred leek pesto pasta salad. It leaves even more time to Netflix and chill, preferably alongside fellow Italian kitchen rebels.
Finally, Charlie and I are going to be heading back to the motherland in August, including a few days in Genoa!! We’ll be road tripping, so if you have any must-eats in Genoa, Tuscany or Rome, please let me know in the comments!
From one healthy hedonist, to another,
Charred Leek Pesto Pasta with Almonds
- Heat an outdoor grill, or proceed with the indoor instructions below.
- Clean the leeks: remove the dark green sections and halve the leeks lengthwise. Under running water, gently rinse the leeks, pulling apart the layers to wash away any grit that’s gotten caught in them. Transfer to a work surface and brush lightly with olive oil.
- Cook the leeks, outdoors: grill the leeks cut-side down until nicely charred, about 5 minutes. Flip them and lower the grill cover so they steam all the way through. When tender, remove to a work surface (about 5 more minutes).
- Cook the leeks, indoors: heat a large cast iron or heavy-bottomed skillet over a high flame. Place the leeks cut-side down and cook until nicely charred, about 5 minutes. Flip them and cover the pan so they steam all the way through. When tender, remove to a work surface (about 5 more minutes).
- When cool enough to touch, roughly chop the leeks and transfer to a food processor or blender along with the herbs, lemon juice, sea salt, 1/4 cup almonds, and 1/4 cup olive oil. Puree until smooth, adding more olive oil until you reach the consistency of ranch dressing.
- Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package directions, reserving 1/4 cup of starchy cooking liquid. Drain the pasta and transfer to a mixing bowl. Add the leek pesto and toss to combine, adding a splash or two of cooking liquid to thin the pesto if it’s gotten too thick or dry.
- Transfer the pasta to serving bowls or a platter and top with the remaining almonds (coarsely chopped, if you like).