French bistro salads are legendary, and for good reason. They celebrate the ingredients, are dressed well in advance and are served at room temperature.
In a favorite Parisian cafe, I might find finely shredded carrots tossed with olive oil and parsley, called carottes rapees, or a similarly simple pea salad with fresh mint. Lightly steamed asparagus. Chickpeas. Braised endive. Yet of all these offerings, leeks in a bright vinaigrette win me over every time — gentle and sweet, without a soupcon of harshness.
Early-season leeks are my favorite of all the alliums. I love them raw, when they are mild and tender; crisped up for a frizzled topping; and wilted slowly in butter for a creamy, gentle undercurrent in potato soup. In the accompanying recipe, they are steamed and sauced with a bright, mustardy vinaigrette, then paired with wobbly-yolked eggs. Just luscious and easy. And, as with so many things French, a mere handful of ingredients make a dazzling addition to any meal.
Cold-hardy leeks are planted in the fall. They winter over, the soil mounded up to protect the stalks, which keeps them pale and tender. In early spring, leeks are sturdy, with inner leaves that are a hopeful green. And while leeks may be available year-round, and some varieties are planted expressly for summer harvest, gardeners agree they grow sweeter and milder with an extended time in the cold earth. (The same is true for parsnips, carrots, turnips and rutabagas.)
I choose strong stalks that have plenty of white at the root end, all of equal thickness so they will cook in the same amount of time. Slice off the tough top leaves, cutting just at the point where dark emerald turns to pale peridot. Those tough leaves store plenty of flavor, so I stash them (cleaned) in a bag in the freezer where I keep other ingredients for stock (onion skins, carrot peelings, celery ends and mushroom stems).
Leeks are famous for harboring sand and soil between their oniony layers, grit that can make any dish truly disappointing. So I take the extra step of rinsing the sliced leeks in a deep bowl of ice-cold water, waiting for the grit to settle at the bottom of the bowl and scooping the leeks from the surface.
I use a metal steamer, but a bamboo steamer works well, too. Spread the sliced leeks evenly across the steamer and cook over simmering water until they are just fork-tender. I keep close watch on their texture and remove the steamer as soon as they have softened. If they steam too long they can turn a dull, muddy green, but they will still taste delicious in this salad.
In adding medium-cooked eggs, a party platter is born and the dish becomes Instagram-worthy. Wait for the glorious moment when those glossy yolks pool with the vinaigrette on the plate to form a creamy, bright sauce. Be forewarned: It’s the kind of sauce that demands a swipe with a hunk of baguette.
Bring this dish to a holiday meal or a casual lunch — any celebration of spring will do.
Leeks vinaigrette with egg
Of the handful of classic French salads, leeks vinaigrette is a shining star. Pastured eggs; young, new leeks and a bright, young olive oil will make this dish extra special.
It’s often served with grated hard-cooked eggs on top, but this version offers a medium-cooked egg instead; here, the softer yolk blends with the vinaigrette for a smooth, creamy dressing.
Make ahead: The leeks may be steamed, thoroughly cooled, wrapped and refrigerated up to 1 day in advance. The eggs may be cooked and refrigerated up to 2 days in advance. The vinaigrette may be refrigerated for up to 1 week. The salad may be composed up to 1 hour in advance.
8 medium-size young leeks of equal size
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon minced shallot
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Fill a large bowl or container with cool water and ice cubes. Discard the leeks’ tough, dark green tops and stringy root ends. Cut each leek lengthwise in half. Place the halved leeks in the ice-water bath; let them sit for 15 minutes or so, then carefully lift them out without disturbing any dislodged grit.
Place a steamer basket in a large pot. Fill until the water is hovering just below the steamer. Bring the water to a boil over high heat and add the leeks. Cover and steam for 12 to 15 minutes, until fork-tender. They will retain their bright color and will not be entirely wilted. Be careful not to overcook them. Use tongs to transfer the leeks to a rimmed baking sheet to cool.
Fill a bowl with fresh cool water and ice cubes. Boil a saucepan of water that’s deep and wide enough to hold the eggs in a single layer. Use a slotted spoon to lower the eggs into the water, cover and set a timer for 6 minutes. When the time’s up, drain the eggs and transfer them to the ice-water bath. Peel them right in the ice-water bath as soon as you can (for easy peeling).
Combine the shallot, vinegar and salt in a small lidded jar. Let this mixture sit for about 5 minutes (this will reduce the sharpness of the shallot), then add the oil, mustard and pepper. Seal and shake vigorously to form an emulsified vinaigrette.
To serve, arrange the leeks on a platter. Cut the eggs lengthwise in half; their yolks should be slightly runny. Place the halved eggs around the leeks. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the leeks and eggs just before serving.
Makes 8 servings. Nutrition per serving: 210 calories, 5 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 95 milligrams cholesterol, 220 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 6 grams sugar.