Leeks, beets and walnut cream: an artfully composed vegetarian dinner salad

Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post - Leek, Beet and Orange Salad With Walnut Cream.

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When I make salad for dinner, it tends to be a one-bowl affair: I toss greens, grains, beans and other vegetables together with their dressing so you can get a taste of just about everything with each forkful. And I dig in forcefully.

Every now and then, though, I’m reminded of the sheer beauty of the composed salad (or, to be all French about it, salade composée) when I see a plate arranged so artfully it could pass for a still life. I got one of those reminders at the new Cleveland Park restaurant La Piquette recently when, for one of the brunch courses, chef Francis Layrle served me a salad of beets, baby leeks, yogurt and walnuts that was a study in soothing simplicity. But it was more than the arrangement that soothed; Layrle had also cooked the leeks in a way that rendered them perfectly tender, with a clarified flavor and a hint of smokiness.

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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How? He charred them black on the grill, which caused them to steam inside; then he peeled them.

I had to try it at home, especially after I spied a pile of baby leeks for sale by the bunch at the farmers market. I don’t have good ventilation in my new kitchen, though, so rather than pull out the grill pan I charred them under the broiler — my favorite indoor substitute for an outdoor grill. And to give the salad main-course heft (and a little more protein), I turned his lovely swipe of yogurt into a walnut cream, brightened with a little orange zest.

As the snow swirled outside, my dinner companion and I swiped bites of earthy beets and soft leeks through the cream. So civilized. So composed.

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