Poor leeks—more often than not, these overlooked veggies get passed over for their cousin, the onion, or wind up as background notes to more familiar specimens, like potatoes. Despite being incredibly versatile and downright delicious, they really don’t get enough top billing, at least in this neck of the woods. Adding to the trials the humble leek faces: with lack of popularity comes a decrease in production and availability, in turn, driving up the price, so fewer consumers take an adventurous chance on them.
And so goes the vicious cycle. Luckily, there are still enough die-hard fans in North America to keep the leek market going strong, because I really don’t want them to fade into the realm of unattainable, expensive luxuries.
The French, on the other hand, worship the leek. Their love is so strong that in doing research for this post, I stumbled across a study (written wholly en français, so luckily, my French is somewhat up to par) claiming the leek (poireau in French) is the 11th most-popular vegetable in the country! That’s ahead of peas, cauliflower, and even asparagus. I knew the French liked their leeks, but this stat still surprised me.
Leeks Vinaigrette is an homage to the country’s deep adoration for the vegetable, and a perfect example of their inclination towards simple applications which allow their vegetables to truly shine. It is a quintessential dish, traditionally served as a starter or salad, yet is equally welcome as a side dish. The poached leeks become meltingly tender, and their natural sweetness is enhanced with minimal effort.
Free of complication without skimping on flavor, this recipe is my take on the classic French marinated salad. I’ve kept a lot of the traditional ingredients and added a heaping handful of shaved sharp cheese; the brininess plays beautifully with the sweetness of the leeks and tangy dressing, providing interesting textural contrast and a delicate balance of tart, salty, and sweet.
Be sure to look for smaller leeks to make this dish, no more than 1 inch in diameter (preferably smaller, if you find them), as they will be the most tender and delicate. The dish actually improves with some marinating time, making it ideal to prepare in advance. The simplicity and freshness of the dish is a welcome accompaniment for heavier, creamy dishes and meats, and is a supreme complement to grilled meats as well. For a heartier salad, a couple of sliced or chopped hardboiled eggs or a handful of toasted walnuts or hazelnuts scattered on top would be delicious, and could even turn this from side dish to vegetarian main course.
Leeks Vinaigrette with Grainy Mustard and Grana Padano
Serves 4, as a side dish
Prep time: 15 minutes, plus 10+ minutes of marinating time
Cook time: 20 minutes
8 small leeks, or 4 larger leeks, trimmed of dark green parts (save the inside portions for another application) and trimmed of root, leaving base of root intact
1 small shallot, minced
2 tablespoons sherry, champagne, or wine vinegar
2 teaspoons grainy mustard
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
½ cup fruity olive oil, walnut oil, or hazelnut oil
1 large pinch salt
Fresh cracked pepper
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 ounces hard cheese (Grana Padano, Parmesan, Pecorino, etc.)
- Fill a large bowl with cold water and set aside. Trim leeks to relatively equal lengths, cutting away dark green ends. Trim root end of leeks, being careful to leave a bit of the root base, so leeks stay together when sliced. Slice leeks lengthwise in half. Place in bowl of water and swish around to allow any grit within the leaves to settle in the bottom of the bowl.
- Lift leeks from water and place flat in a large, shallow pan (they can be stacked, if necessary). Add about an inch of water. Season leeks lightly with salt. Cover pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and gently poach in the water until leeks are tender, about 10-20 minutes, depending on thickness.
- Meanwhile, prepare dressing: Whisk together minced shallot, mustard, and vinegar in a small bowl. Slowly drizzle in oil, whisking constantly, until incorporated. Season with salt and cracked pepper. Set aside.
- Using a vegetable peeler, shave large pieces of cheese. Set aside. Chop parsley and set aside.
- When leeks are tender, using tongs, transfer to a colander to drain for a minute, then arrange on a serving platter or dish. Whisk dressing and drizzle over leeks while still warm. Let marinate for at least 10 minutes, or up to 1 day. Bring to room temperature to serve. Scatter with parsley, then cheese shavings. Serve.
Image from Briana Goodall.