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A Leek in All My Pots

An Autumn of Harvesting Grapes Unearths a Taste for Simple Country Fare

September 14, 2003|DAVID LANSING | David Lansing last wrote for the magazine about hosting a dinner party.

When fresh out of college and living in Paris on a ridiculously small budget, as I was some 20 years ago, I found myself eating--over and over again--a handful of certain cafe favorites such as croque monsieur and ravioli au fromage. Which is why, after months of uninspired meals, I happily took up an offer from an acquaintance to work the vendange, or grape harvest, at his family's chateau in Saint-Emilion, a small medieval village near Bordeaux, despite his warning that I'd be paid little more than room and board. It was the "board" part that most interested me.

The vendange is French socialism at its best. Students come from all over Europe to work the French vineyards in September. The work is back-breaking, but you forget about that at midday, when everyone collapses around rustic wooden tables and feasts on hearty meals of roasted garlic chicken, ragouts of braised veal and carrots, and my favorite dish, a peasant soup of coarsely chopped potatoes and leeks.

The leeks were sauteed in butter and a little white wine, and then braised in homemade chicken stock before being chopped into one- or two-inch sections and added to a boiling pot of cubed potatoes and sliced onions in more stock. The only additional ingredients were a few turns of fresh pepper, a little sea salt and a handful of fresh herbs.

There was a particular French way to eating the potage that made its earthy heritage even more satisfying. A hunk of crusty baguette was ripped off and dipped repeatedly into the soup until most of the broth was gone, then you used your fingers to pluck chunks of savory leek and plop them into your mouth.

Maybe it was the boisterous patois of various nationalities excitedly talking and eating at the same time, or the mingling of vineyards and earth and olive trees in the warm afternoon air. But to this day, I've seldom had al fresco meals as satisfying as those at the Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere in Saint-Emilion. When I returned home, I tried re-creating the simple potato-leek potage. But eventually I realized I was more interested in the complex earthy-sweet flavor of the braised leeks than the grainy nuggets of starchy russet, which, after all, were little more than filler.

This summer, we tore out our water-guzzling lawn and the tropical plants in the backyard and replaced them with lavender and rosemary and olive trees around a decomposed granite courtyard. My wife found some green wrought-iron chairs--just like the ones in the Paris gardens. She assembled them around a little tin table beneath a vine-covered arbor where this month, in honor of the wine harvest everywhere, we shall host a small dinner party and serve rosemary-garlic chicken, warm potato salad and leeks Provencal. And we'll wash it all down with numerous bottles of a Bordeaux, of course.


Leeks Provencal

Serves 4

4 medium leeks, well-washed

2 cups water

1 tablespoon herbes de Provence

1 tablespoon unsalted butter or olive oil

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Cut off leek tops leaving about 1 inch of green and all of the white part of the leek. Trim off the roots and rinse the leeks under running water, spreading the leaves apart to remove all dirt. Cut leeks lengthwise. Melt butter in a large saute pan. Place leeks, cut side up, in one layer and gently saute for 4 or 5 minutes. Pour in enough water to almost cover leeks (about 1 inch). Add herbes de Provence and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer partly covered for 10-12 minutes, or until white part of leeks are tender when pierced.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together wine vinegar and mustard. Add olive oil gradually while whisking constantly. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the vinaigrette over the drained leeks, turning leeks to thoroughly coat. Serve hot or at room temperature.

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