I was in London when it started snowing, staying with a friend in her small bedsit and we turned the lights out and stood at the window watching the snow and drinking our wine and getting excited about our cold crunchy walk the next morning. I love that snow unites the country and city briefly under the same white blanket, and so I had a sparkly slushy wander around London, and then returned home and had an icy nose-nipping jog across the heath near my house. Today I’ve been watching the goldfinches, bluetits, bramblings, greenfinches, blackbirds and the lumbering pigeons eating us out of house and home with their seed and peanut consumption. I try not to disturb them by going into the garden but sadly a girl’s got to eat so I briefly scattered them for the sake of my dinner and made a foray down the garden to dig some leeks.
I love leeks and their mild onion-y flavour and they go beautifully with some creamy sauce. I don’t enjoy thick gloopy glutinous white sauces made with white flour and milk and so instead I use wholemeal flour and the stock from cooking my leeks and mushrooms which also means that the flavours are not lost into the compost bin.
However I’ve skipped a few steps so let’s first start with your list of ingredients -
A handful of leeks
125 grams/a big handful (or so) of mushrooms
A pint and a half (dry) of wholemeal pasta
2 tablespoons of wholemeal flour
425ml/ ¾ pint liquid. This is made up of the stock you will generate from cooking the onions mushrooms and leeks and if you want it, some milk.
Strong Cheddar. I use unpasteurised where possible, Lincolnshire Poacher is good. It’s expensive but because it’s so flavoursome you only use it sparingly anyway.
Now you’ve got your checklist you need to begin by chopping up an onion, you need only halve it and then slice it, don’t worry about carefully dicing it. You will now need to decide upon your pan. Rather than baking this dish, it simply goes straight from the hob to under the grill. I use a wok for this as it is nice a shallow allowing for a large surface area to be covered with grated cheese. You could also cook this in something else on your hob, and then transfer it to a grill-friendly dish if you prefer – I’m just trying to minimise the washing up!
This recipe can be quite a quick dinner or you can start your onions a few hours earlier than you want to eat to allow them to really sweat down and develop flavour. Into your wok (or other carefully selected pan!) chuck your onion and some olive oil or sunflower oil. Put this on a really low heat with the lid on and allow them to sweat. They will go lovely and clear and start to smell almost nutty. You will also want to add in some mushrooms, chopped into generous chunks. If you collected wild mushrooms this autumn and cooked them down and froze them like me, you can add them later (or if you find yourself with some sad looking mushrooms in the bottom of your fridge you can always fry them down and freeze them and then next time you come to make something like this, whip them out and chuck them in your pan, they’ll defrost in no time).
Leave your onions and mushrooms and go off and potter elsewhere in the house for a while. You can also use your hour whilst the onions are making delicious things happen to go and collect together your other ingredients.
When you’ve indulged in a nice bit of pottering return to your onions and add a few leeks chopped into inch long lengths. For those of you not inclined towards imperial measurements we’re talking top-joint-of-your-thumb length. For three people I used the amount of leeks shown in the above picture, obviously the number of leeks vary widely according to size so go by volume and by how much you love leeks. You also want to add a good slug of water, a sprinkle of salt and a nice grind of black pepper.
Bring your leeks up to a simmer, meanwhile in a small saucepan place your butter on a low heat and melt it, then add to it your two tablespoons of wholemeal flour. You can turn your heat off at this point and into your leeks pour your pasta, then using a boiled kettle top up the water to cover the pasta and keep it at a simmer for around 7 minutes.
Once your pasta is cooked, use the lid to prevent all your bits and pieces sliding out, and strain your liquid out into a jug. Leave your pasta leeks onions and mushrooms sitting quietly on the side out of the way and off the heat. Turn your butter and flour (this is known as a roux) back on again to a low heat and add a little splosh of your stock that you drained into a jug. Stir it to combine it with your roux. Keep doing this adding a little at a time (slowly is best as if you add too much at once the liquid won’t combine and you’ll end up with a lumpy sauce) until you’ve added all your liquid. Allow the liquid to simmer for a little while to thicken and then pour it over your pasta mixture, give it a little stir to combine, grate your cheese over the top, shove it under the grill which you should have on full whack and then wait until your cheese is lovely crispy-golden.
The good news is that despite the sizzling cheese on top, this recipe is actually very low on fat as you’re making a poor man’s white sauce with very little milk, indeed I often use no milk at all, not for slimming reasons but simply because I like it better.
I would have preferred to take some more exciting photos of the finished product unfortunately feeding time is taken very seriously here and so I had to snap this photograph between someone else’s fork-forays and so it is filled with haste rather than artistic integrity.