The sweet, slender leek (Allium porrum) grew up as the invisible underdog in the lily family, constantly overshadowed by onion and garlic, its overbearing, bulbous cousins. Even the French, whose palates have been loyal to the humble shoots since at least the eighth century, refer to them as l’asperge du pauvre–the poor man’s asparagus.
Nonetheless, leeks have fortified cultures from China to Wales since at least 3000 BC, when Egyptians first cultivated them; in fact, they fueled workers laboring on the Great Pyramid. The Roman emperor Nero supposedly adhered to a daily diet of leeks soaked in oil to maintain what he believed to be the powerful timbre of his voice. In the seventh century, the Welsh developed a particular affinity for them when Welsh soldiers distinguished themselves from invading Saxons by garnishing their helmets with leeks. In celebration of their subsequent victory, the Welsh still decorate their hats each year on March 1.
It’s the French, however, who can be credited with elevating the leek’s status in the kitchen. Although the tender white bulb and rough green leaves have long been used to infuse court bouillons and pot-au-feu, the country’s most famous leek dish is vichyssoise, a chilled cream of leek and potato soup supposedly invented in 1917 by Louis Diat, a French chef working at New York City’s Ritz Carlton Hotel. But leeks don’t play their supporting role exclusively in soups; they often temper the pungent ingredients like Gorgonzola or wild chanterelles that serve as filler for savory tarts, and when steamed with white wine, they subtly enhance the sweetness of clams or mussels.
Despite the leek’s tendency to play second fiddle in the specialties that have brought it understated fame, there is perhaps no better way to appreciate the earthy, toothsome succulence of a sun-kissed leek picked at the peak of ripeness than to prepare a plate of poireaux vinaigrette. The mustard’s tanginess and the mellow creaminess of grated hard-boiled eggs allow the tender, salted poached leek to shine like the rich little poor boy it’s always been at heart.