Poireaux Vinaigrette (Leeks Vinaigrette)

January 2, 2013

Vinegar: that’s what fear smells like.
~Jennifer Egan

Tangy fine wine vinegars are aphrodisiacal…much like fear in today’s world.

From the French vin (wine) and aigre (sour). In the Middle Ages, alchemists poured vinegar onto lead in order to create lead acetate. Called “sugar of lead,” it was added to sour cider until it became clear that ingesting the sweetened cider proved deadly. By the Renaissance era, vinegar making was a lucrative trade in France, many of them infused with pepper, cloves, roses, fennel, herbs, raspberries, and the like.

The guild of vinaigriers (vinegar makers) received French royal recognition in the 14th century under Louis XII. The trade was centered on the town of Orléans, but the rue des Vinaigriers in Paris (near the fetching Canal St-Martin) suggests that there were vinaigriers in City of Light too. Today, one of the remaining traditional vinaigriers based in Orléans is Martin Pouret (founded in 1797).

In the making of vinegar, science and art merge, and like its alter ego, wine, vinegar is a subject of scrutiny by gourmands. The transformation of wine or fruit juice to vinegar is a chemical process in which ethyl alcohol undergoes partial oxidation that results in the formation of acetaldehyde which is later converted into acetic acid. Should you care, the chemical reaction flows something like this: CH 3 CH 2 OH=2HCH 3 CHO=CH 3 COOH.

I would heartily recommend maintaining a selection of vinegars in the pantry, with red wine vinegar as the central choice, but make room in the pantry for white wine, champagne, tarragon, apple cider, sherry, and balsamic vinegars (or the French take, banyuls).

This plate is a classic, but by no means should be considered antediluvian. More like primeval.


8 small leeks
Sea salt

2 T Dijon mustard
2 T red wine vinegar
1 small shallot, peeled and finely minced
6 T extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 T capers
12 cornichons
12 niçoise olives, pitted
2 eggs, hard boiled and halved lengthwise

Trim leeks, cutting off hairy roots, removing tough outer layers, and trimming off the tops while leaving some green. Make a lengthwise slit part way down each leek. Put leeks in a large glass bowl with cool running tap water and swish to remove any sand or dirt. Remove leeks and set aside on a towel.

Fill a pot with cold water and bring to a boil. Then, salt generously and drop in leeks. Reduce heat some and cook at a brisk simmer until leeks are tender when pierced with a paring knife, about 8-10 minutes. Drain in a colander and cool to room temperature, again on a towel.

Meanwhile whisk together mustard, wine vinegar and shallot in a bowl. Vigorously whisk in olive oil to emulsify and make a smooth sauce. Season with salt and pepper and whisk a little more. The vinaigrette should be fairly bright, and the mustard flavor should come through, but not too patently.

Arrange leeks on plates. Spoon vinaigrette over leeks and sprinkle with capers. If desired, garnish each plate with cornichons, olives, and eggs. And then “oh yeah, baby.”

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