Acculturation happens in subtle, often unnoticeable, ways. But it’s still rare that more than a few days go by without a deep-seated recognition that the country in which I live remains, in ways both superficial and profound, deeply foreign. More than two years have passed, and I am no wiser as to why so many people at my gym can be found outside, smoking cigarettes, immediately after a workout, how even the simplest, most transactional conversation, can shift into the realm of philosophical abstraction or why Parisians see nothing odd about parking on the sidewalk.
When it comes to food, however, the barriers to entry are somewhat lower. I’ve acquired a Parisian’s snobbery regarding pastry, learned how to enjoy steak tartare with élan and made at least a tentative peace with butter and cream.
In my kitchen, olive oil is still the usual fat of choice. And in the last few weeks, as summer approaches, I am even more likely to return home from the market with a bag full of Mediterranean produce: peppers, olives, goat’s cheese and rosé. Yet several days ago, as I stood in line at my regular vegetable stand, shifting to get the warm sun on my shoulders, I could not resist grabbing a bunch of the most quintessential northern French vegetable—leeks.
Though grown year-round, leeks are traditionally used in hearty winter soups and stews, from pot au feu to potage bonne femme. Steamed and served at room temperature with a sharp, mustardy vinaigrette, they could almost pass as a warm-weather starter. But in late May a slow sauté, followed by a dousing of crème fraiche, certainly violates most dictums of seasonality. Yet while I couldn’t recommend it for a genuinely steamy climate, this dish is—and I don’t say this lightly—worth putting aside the tomatoes for one evening.
Poireaux aux moutarde et crème fraiche (Leeks with mustard and crème fraiche)
Serves 2 (can easily be doubled or tripled)
Total time: 35 minutes; Active time: 10 minutes
It doesn’t look like much, and I’m sure the key ingredients have been combined with more finesse elsewhere. But for a simple accompaniment to roast chicken, steak or even a fat filet of white fish, I’ve found little to equal it. With so few ingredients, fresh mustard (Dijon, grain or a mixture) and full-fat crème fraiche are essential. Depending on your mood and palate, the dish can either be smooth and almost sloppy, with just a faint bite of mustard, or more aggressive in flavour, with a teaspoon or two of cream to bind. And while the cooking time given can be shortened somewhat, I find that allowing the leeks to soften gently adds significantly to the flavour of the dish.
4-5 medium leeks
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp Dijon and/or grain mustard, possibly more to taste
Up to 2 tbsp crème fraiche
Salt and pepper
Slice the tops and base of the leeks, cut in half lengthwise and clean under running water. Slice into thin half-moons. In a large frying pan, melt the butter on a low heat. Add the leeks, season with salt and pepper and allow to cook gently for at least 20 minutes. In order to get the leeks to achieve a melting texture and avoid sticking or burning, you may need to add a tablespoon or so of water to the pan at regular intervals. When the leeks are very soft, take them off the heat. Add crème fraiche and mustard to taste, adjusting seasoning as necessary. Serve hot.
I’ve written up this dish for “Waiter, there’s something in my...”, a bistro blogging event being hosted this month by The Passionate Cook. Check back there in several days time for prettier, more elegant and altogether more skilled entries.