A recent dinner out brought home a new cooking technique for us—“melting” leeks by cooking them slowly in butter. They’re a sweet complement to sautéed scallops and pasta. Recipe below.
We’ve used leeks any number of ways here. Sautéed, puréed in soups, braised with duck legs, baked into tarts and quiches, even cooked almost whole as a side dish. But melted?
That’s how they were served with a nicely cooked piece of halibut when we ate at Frontier in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood recently. As delicious as the fish was on its own, the melted leeks took it to a whole new place. We knew we’d be trying something with them here soon.
In their simplest, purest form, melted leeks are leeks cooked in butter over low heat for a long time. Unlike caramelizing, where you use higher heat to deeply brown onions or other vegetables, this is more of an extreme sweating process. As you can see with the leeks peeking out from under the scallops above, they barely color. The long, low cooking makes them meltingly soft (hence the name) and brings out their sweetness. A splash of lemon juice at the end balances the butter’s richness. The result is a sweet, luxurious accompaniment perfect for just about any seafood.
There are any number of recipes out there for melted leeks. Some call for boiling the leeks first for nearly half an hour. I think this would just drain them of lots of their flavor, and leeks are already quite mild. Writer Regina Schrambling beautifully describes them as the gentle giants of the onion family. If you’ve never cooked with them, their imposing appearance can be daunting. But their taste is absolutely civilized.
Scallops were Marion’s call as we discussed what to do with melted leeks on the way home from Frontier. As were the egg noodles. In fact, this post might have been hers, but I was the one with more time for the kitchen this weekend. Scallops are always fun to work with. They cook quickly and are practically impossible to screw up (unless you don’t cook them quickly). They’re rich and meaty, with a slight sweetness. And they just look cool, with their drumlike shape. Here, I halved them so they wouldn’t overwhelm the pasta. It also made them easier to eat; you can cut them with just the side of the fork.
The egg noodles work well with this dish because of their shape and scale. You don’t want a long, twirly pasta here, but rather noodles you can jab with a fork, along with scallop bites.
Besides lots of butter, some olive oil, some lemon juice and salt and pepper, the only other ingredient here is parsley. It adds a nice freshness without imposing a bigger herb taste that, say, tarragon or sage might. The stars of this show are the leeks and the scallops.
Scallops with Melted Leeks and Egg Noodles
2 cups sliced leeks (from 2 large or 3 smaller leeks)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
good quality extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1/2 pound sea scallops (about 4 to 6)
1/2 pound short, wide egg noodles (or other ribbon pasta)
Melt the leeks. Slice the dark green leafy top and root tip from each leek, leaving just the white and pale green parts. Halve lengthwise and rinse under cold running water, fanning layers to wash away any grit. Slice leeks crosswise into 1/8- to 1/4-inch half moons.
Heat a heavy lidded saucepan over a medium-low flame. (Heavy is the key here, a thin-bottomed pan will brown or even burn the leeks.) Cut up butter and add to pan, along with 1 tablespoon oil, swirling to combine. Add leeks to pan and stir to coat with butter and oil. Season with salt and pepper. Add 2 tablespoons water, stir again and cover the pan. Reduce heat to low and cook for 1/2 hour, stirring occasionally and adding water a tablespoon at a time if the leeks seem too dry. I added 3 tablespoons through the course of melting the leeks. The leeks don’t truly “melt,” by the way—they won’t be like a confit or jam. But they will be buttery soft. You can make ahead to this point and keep them covered on the stovetop.
Meanwhile, prepare the scallops. Rinse scallops under cold running water, feeling the surfaces carefully for any bits of sand. Slice off the side muscle from any scallop that still has it—this is a tougher piece of flesh attached to the side (for the second time in one post, I’m saying “hence the name”). Pat the scallops dry with paper towels and halve crosswise. Season both sides with salt and pepper and dredge the tops and bottoms lightly in flour. Lightly is key—you don’t want to bread the scallops, but just give the pan something to brown. Set aside.
Also meanwhile, cook the pasta. You want to time this so the pasta is done just before you’re ready to cook the scallops. The scallops will cook very quickly, and you don’t want to be screwing around with draining noodles while the scallops overcook. Cook according to package instructions. When the pasta is cooked to your liking, drain it, reserving some cooking water. Toss with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt, pepper and half the chopped parsley. Cover and set aside.
And finally, cook the scallops. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium flame. (If the leeks need reheating, put them over a low flame now.) Add a tablespoon or so of oil and a teaspoon or so of butter to the skillet and swirl together. You want enough fat to coat the bottom of the pan well. Add the scallops and cook until just browned, about 2 minutes. Turn and cook for a minute more (the browned side will be the presentation side—the rest of the time is just to cook them through). Transfer scallops to a small plate and tent with foil.
Assemble the dish. Toss the egg noodles once more. If they seem dry, add a little of the reserved cooking water. Divide noodles between 2 shallow pasta bowls (you don’t have to use all the pasta—just put a good serving in each bowl). If you reheated the leeks, remove them from the heat and stir in the lemon juice. Spoon leeks over pasta. In this case, do use all of them—they’re very good. Arrange four scallop halves on each bowl and sprinkle with some of the remaining parsley. Serve.