Nick Bramham's Leeks Vinaigrette
An introductory essay, how to boil leeks, and a recipe. Text and photography by Nick Bramham.
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Welcome to Vittles Recipes! In this new weekly slot, our roster of six rotating columnists will share their recipes and wisdom with you. This week’s columnist is Nick Bramham. You can read our archive of cookery writing here.
Leeks Vinaigrette: A Personal History
An introductory essay, how to boil leeks, and a recipe for leeks vinaigrette. Text and photographs by Nick Bramham
A much younger and more iconoclastic me first prepared leeks vinaigrette by plunging the leeks directly into the smouldering embers of a Big Green Egg – I was going through a ‘live-fire’ phase. The interior of each leek cooked slowly in the smoke and steam generated while the exterior gradually blackened and burned until it resembled a stick of charcoal. The resulting ‘bark’ was removed and blitzed into a fine ash to later be sprinkled over the dish, as was de rigueur at the time. The hearts were cut into discs of equal thickness, fussily arranged on a plate, drizzled with a mustard-heavy vinaigrette, and sprinkled with finely grated egg, smoked anchovies, anchovy pangrattato, chopped chives, and finally the ash, which added nothing. It was the most maximalist version of the dish I would ever prepare.
Not only was the garnish overkill, but the cooking method (inspired, loosely, by the Catalonian way with calçots) resulted in leeks that were way too al dente for this dish (or any dish really) and had a subtle smokiness that was not at all complementary. I thought it was cool at the time, but I’ve since learned my lesson. Experience has taught me that most traditional dishes don’t require reinvention, refining, or a ‘playful’ take – better instead to try and zero in on the very essence of what makes them delicious and maximise the potential of each ingredient.
Whether they’re a supporting character in a dish or in the starring role, leeks are a vegetable best enjoyed when cooked until tender (no one has ever seriously enjoyed a crunchy leek). Leeks vinaigrette is, I think, their single purest expression, a synthesis of tangy vinaigrette and soft vegetable, all but tamed of its pungent allium bite. The vinaigrette’s electric jolt and creamy texture complement and lift the leeks into another realm.
The recipe for leeks vinaigrette could be as straightforward as ‘Boil leeks, then dress them,’ but actually a lot of work goes into preparing something seemingly so simple. That’s not to say there’s any modernist trickery – anything but, in fact – just lots of attention to detail. So I’d like to dig into the minutiae of the dish to give you a sense of the thought that goes into each step of the process, from seasoning, to managing temperature, to avoiding the folly of ‘refreshing’.
How to Boil Leeks
First, select leeks that are bright and perky. In an ideal world, they would have been plucked from the ground mere moments ago, beads of dew still shimmering on their surface. But if you don’t have your own smallholding, as long as they aren’t dry, droopy, or yellowing you’re in for a good time. The leeks you choose ought to be of uniform length and thickness, and not too skinny – the woody outer layer will be removed after cooking, so if you start with super slender leeks you won’t end up with much on the plate.
Remove the dark green tops and the roots and keep for stock. Next, clean the leeks thoroughly: fill up a vessel large enough to accommodate them (or your sink) with cold water and let them soak for half an hour. Then, one by one, with the root end pointing upwards, plunge the leeks in and out of the water with a Norman-Batesian stabbing motion. This should remove most of the stubborn grit lurking between the folds.
Cut the leeks in half if they are especially long, then arrange them horizontally in your favourite appropriately sized pan, stacking them in two or three layers if necessary. Add 50g of salt and 2½ litres of cold water. The water should cover the leeks by about a centimetre when pressed below the surface – if you need to add more water be sure to add salt too (2g salt for every 100ml). Using just enough water is not only a more efficient way of cooking, it ensures that dilution of flavour is kept to a minimum. Also, after the leeks are cooked the remaining water makes an excellent base for stock.