Oh, it definitely feels like summer's come to an end all of a sudden! It was darn chilly at 5 when I got up to let the cats out... Brrr! It's the perfect day to curl up under a duvet (throw it in the dryer before snuggling in!) with a good book, or a ball of yarn and some knitting needles. (I could really use a new scarf for this winter... ) I'm almost tempted to turn the heaters on tonight, but I won't, September 16th just feels too early for that.
It's certainly a perfect day for an old favourite of mine: Poireaux-vinaigrette. It sounds so prosaic in English -leeks with dressing- but I suppose that's all they really are. Leeks are beautiful vegetables in their own right, but they often play second fiddle to everything else on the plate. Poireaux-vinaigrette places the spotlight squarely on the leeks themselves.
I didn't always like this dish. When I was a kid, my father often made this salad, sometimes served warm, other times cold; occasionally the leeks were gritty, or stringy and they would get stuck in my teeth. No, indeed, I have to admit that there were times when I had a really hard time swallowing leeks no matter how they were dressed up. There were brief moments when I thought that leeks weren't half bad, but it was never a coup de foudre (thunder-struck love).
It wasn't until much later that I learned how lovely leeks could be on their own. I was in a bouchon lyonais -a traditional Lyon bistro- with a friend, and the carte I was looking at had nothing much by way of vegetarian options. My friend marvelled at the carnivore's smörgåsbord that presented itself to her, what with the cured meats, pâtés and whatnots. My only choice apparently was the Salade de Chèvre Chaud (salad with warm goat cheese croûtons) minus the lardons (salt-cured bacons batons). The waitress shot me a quizzical look, nodded when I offered that I didn't eat meat, and walked away with our order. When she returned with my friend's starter platter of charcuterie, she held a second plate in her hand: "Tenez mademoiselle, le chef vous a préparé des poireaux-vinaigrette!" (Here you go miss, the chef made some leeks for you.)
At this point, I still wasn't too fond of this onion relative, but I couldn't return the plate, so I took a bite of leek. It was meltingly soft, without a hint of stringiness. The leeks' sweet earthiness melded with the dressing's tangy zip: it was a revelation! Leeks were indeed delicious, and need not be hidden amongst other vegetables, or disappeared into a stock or soup.
This salad can be served as a starter or as a side vegetable. Count on using 3-4 small or 2 medium leeks per person. You can use large leeks, but the smaller ones can be picked up and eaten like asparagus: with your fingers! Also larger leeks can sometimes be stringy, so it is best to keep them for recipes calling for chopped leeks.
1 bunch leeks
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 Tbs white or red wine vinegar (or cider or rice...)
5 Tbs neutral oil
a few fresh grinds of pepper
Bring a large pot of water up to the boil. If you have no intention of using the cooking water on your plants, add a spoonful of salt when the water comes up to the boil.
Meanwhile, trim off the root end and most of the green part of the leeks: you want to keep only the straight white part. (Keep the greens for a soup, stock or for roasting.) Also, to insure that your leeks do not have any grit, cut well below the curvy part of the stalk (at least 2cm/ 1".)
Remove the first outer layer of the leeks. Wash.
Throw in the pot of boiling water, cover, lower the heat to medium-high, and cook for 10 minutes.
To prepare the vinaigrette: in a small mixing bowl, whisk the mustard and ground pepper, slowly add the oil in a slow drizzle. It should emulsify like a mayonnaise, but if it doesn't, no worries, it will taste great just the same. Once all the oil has been absorbed by the mustard, add the vinegar. Check the seasoning: it should be salty enough, but you can add an extra pinch if need be.
When the time is up, remove the leeks from the pot, and let cool until they can be handled: remove two more layers of leaves, and discard. (Despite being cooked to death and relatively tender, these outer leaves will seem stringy, but they can be used in a soup.)
Drizzle with the dressing, and serve.
Poireaux-vinaigrette are often served warm, but they are equally scrumptious at room temperature or cold at a picnic. Make sure you have some crusty bread with this salad, because you will want to sop up any vinaigrette left in your plate!