I grew up in Arizona in the 1970s, where leeks were all but unknown. In fact, I didn’t encounter my first one until the year after high school, when I lived in France. I stayed at a Waldorf school in the Allier, and worked as a fille au pair for a family with four boys under the age of ten. Their mother was an English expat who taught me how to cook with all the fascinating, unfamiliar new ingredients I was confronted with during that year, including, and most notably, the ubiquitous poireaux. Thanks to Vivian, I learned to make leeks every which way: in white wine and butter, with a strong mustard-and-shallot vinaigrette, in vichyssoise, braised with beurre blanc. Ever since, I’ve been fascinated by leeks.
As Mother’s Day approaches this year, I’m remembering Vivian with great fondness and appreciation. She was a wee slip of a woman with a straight spine and a crooked smile, a golden-eyed, auburn-haired beauty. She greeted disaster with consistent dry-witted good humor, whether Alain-Michel had set the living room wastebasket on fire, or James wouldn’t take his wool hat off for an entire winter, or her clumsy teenage American au pair broke her favorite bowl. She forgave us all, not angelically, but fatalistically, because that was how life was: things fell apart, and then you poured yourself a cup of tea and got on with it.
As her sons tumbled through their little old house, her husband Pierre flapping behind them, everyone shedding coats and leaves and papers, Vivian was calm and steady. She spoke French fluently, but with a British accent so strong it sounded like English. “Now Katie,” I can still hear her saying with amused remonstrance as I scraped the bottom of a pot of oatmeal with a spatula, “always stir with a wooden spoon in a metal pan.” And to this day, I do, I do!
Her steadiness was a stabilizer for my internal chaos and emotional disarray, all the confusing feelings and desires I didn’t yet know how to grapple with, or even name. I admired and loved Vivian. But even more, I needed what she offered me. Technically, I worked for her, but the small salary plus room and board I was given in return were a pittance compared to the wealth of knowledge she offered.
Now, at 60, here in New Mexico, I’m making poireaux vinaigrette for a Mother’s Day lunch to celebrate my husband’s mother, Kat, always one of my favorite people to cook for. She’s infallibly curious, open-minded, appreciative, and eats with that gourmande’s gusto that warms the heart of any home cook. To go alongside the sweet, velvety leeks in tangy vinaigrette, I’m making a pile of socca, whose smoky taste goes so well with red wine vinegar. I’ll serve them with cheese, an herbed chèvre and a Humboldt fog. And for dessert, a French yogurt cake with a citrus glaze.
As I cook, I’m giving a silent toast to all the truly motherly people I know, male or female, with or without human kids, anyone who loves to nurture and care for other living things. What could be a better symbol for this intrinsic maternal spirit than the strong, sturdy, delicious and elegant leek?
Kate Christensen’s Mother’s Day Menu:
Socca with cheese,
Yogurt citrus cake
Leeks vinaigrette recipe
6 small-to-medium leeks, the green parts cut off
½ cup olive oil
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 smallish shallots, minced
1-2 tsp. each grainy and Dijon mustards
1 tsp. dry tarragon
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. sugar
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
2 Tbsp. capers, rinsed and dried
2 Tbsp. minced chives or parsley
6 strips of bacon, fried to a crisp and crumbled
First, slice each leek neatly in half all the way down to, but not through, the root end, keeping it intact. Wash each leek carefully under cool running water, getting rid of any sandy dirt embedded within. Tie the ends tightly with twine and set into a steamer basket in a pot with a well-fitting lid. Cover and steam for 20-30 minutes, until they’re limp and very soft. A sharp knife should pierce them easily.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the vinaigrette ingredients together. Hard boil, peel, and chop the eggs. Cook the bacon till very crisp and set on a paper towel to cool and drain, then crumble into a small bowl. Rinse the capers and mince the parsley or chives.
Spread 3 Tablespoons of the vinaigrette on a serving platter, along with 1 chopped hard-boiled egg and 1/3 of the capers.
Untie the leeks, cut off the butt-ends, and finish halving them all. Take off each tough outer leaf. Place the leeks face-down, head to tail, on the dressed platter. Cover with the remaining vinaigrette. Let sit at room temperature for a few hours.
When you’re ready to serve, garnish with the remaining eggs and capers, the minced herbs, and the bacon for crunch (you can also use chopped nuts, bread crumbs, or croutons if you prefer to keep this vegetarian).
Check out more of Kate’s recipes here and here.
Kate Christensen is a novelist, memoirist and food writer based in Taos, New Mexico. This essay is part of a monthly series about French food called Bouffe, created and written exclusively for Frenchly by Kate Christensen. Her books, Blue Plate Special, How to Cook a Moose, The Last Cruise and more can be purchased here, on Amazon. Her next novel, Welcome Home, Stranger, will be published on December 5th, 2023, by HarperCollins.
All photos are courtesy of the author. To see more of Kate’s photos of food, family, the writing process, books and her darling pups, visit her on Instagram, here.