This classy combo of steamed leeks and soft-yolked eggs is so French and so ready for spring
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 râpées, 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 soupçon 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.
• Cathy Barrow is a Washington cookbook author.