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As in any country of any size (Italy, the United States, China, being the best known examples) the cookery of France is a cuisine that is essentially regional. A "French" restaurant is never a precise designation, unless of course, the restaurateur, especially in a foreign country, and particularly the U.S., where French restaurants abound, is ambitious enough to have a bill of fare that fairly represents the diverse numerous distinctive cuisines that add depth and dimension to the country with which we have had a love-hate affair for well over two hundred years.
As Americans have become more sophisticated—say in the past 40 years or so, dating from the publication of the classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking—they can and do indeed distinguish Provençal specialties from those of, say, Alsace, or the great Southwest, of Lyon (the Bologna of France), of Burgundy, of Nice. That is, Nice as well differentiated from Provence, being some amalgam of dishes native to this independent County—not a part of France as we know it until the very late 19th century, plus ingredients begged borrowed or stolen from neighboring Provence, to the west, and Liguria, to the east and the closest distinguishably unique Italian cuisine.
A tart, to speak of one dish common to many cuisines, is simply a pastry casing which is filled with whatever, and may, of course, be savory or sweet, or something in between; and let’s clear this up right now. A pie can be a tart, in that a tart is always open (no top crust or pastry covering), but a tart is most certainly seldom a pie, in that most pies are covered even if only partially. Although the characteristic tarts of Alsace, the onion tart, larded as it is with bits of pork belly, and the ever popular quiche lorraine—butt of innumerable jokes—are well known to Americans, there are few tarts from Provence that have attracted our attention. This is possibly because there are no indigenous tarts in Provence, or even in Nice, but, as I’m being cute, mainly because of a linguistic anomaly and a soupçon of strict culinary interpretation. Strictly speaking, the dish is a tourte, a Provençal and Niçois term. There is the great, and ubiquitous, tourte aux blettes, which comes in two versions, the savory and the sweet. Blettes is French for chard, and it’s a big vegetable in the south of France, in every sense of the adjective.
The weather is temperate enough (even in the somewhat elevated climes of the village, at 540 meters above sea level, and where the usual temperature around the first of the year is 0° Celsius, or freezing, first thing in the morning). On the other hand, this is about as cold as it gets, and chard is a hardy plant. I noticed just the other day as I walked through the village that the nearest potager, or kitchen garden, had a few robust chard heads growing, without a sign of freezing or wilting.
In the market, healthy chard is sold in bunches, even in mid-winter, as a local product, with leaves as much as half a meter long, and more than a quarter meter across, that is to say, in practical terms, and British measure, more than a foot-and-a-half in length from tip to stalk, and, in some cases, as much as a foot across. A bunch is usually about four or five of these behemoth deep forest-green leaves, with startlingly white stalks tinged with light green.
Also readily available are poireaux (pronounced like the cunning and cunningly named Belgian detective invented by Agatha Christie, that is, Poirot) and is simply the magnificent member of the genus allium, the leek, making it cousin to the onion and garlic, though with some loftier pretensions.
Where I am headed with all this is a recipe, one that has become stock-in-trade for me, as I’ve made it repeatedly while over here, probably at least once on every trip for a few years now, and well-known to our friends and neighbors in the terroir. I’ve made it so many times, I make no reference to a recipe, and in fact, have forgotten where I might have seen the original recipe on which I based the one I prepare now not so much by rote as absently, if not automatically.
It’s a wonderful thing, if I do say so myself, and made in the more-or-less 11" tart pan that I use over here—largish by American standards, and doubly so, because the pan is in one piece and with very high sides, perhaps close to an inch-and-a-half, as opposed to the half-inch standard tart pan, with a removable bottom that has become so familiar as the receptacle for almost any dessert or savory tart made commercially in the U.S. The tart I make, which includes far more than the nominal leeks and chard, is a robust dish, with one slice, a healthy wedge of perhaps one-tenth the whole, and a salad making quite a substantial meal.
The crust is a not-out-of the-ordinary pâte brisée, made from scratch from three ingredients, or four, if you insist on a pinch of salt, though I usually omit it.
From this point on, I’ll write this in recipe format, which, being who I am, may not be entirely standard form, but it’s the form I use, and which regular readers have seen before in this space.
And sorry, but since I usually make this tart over here, in metric Europe, what I can interpolate from my usual ministrations to the ingredients, which does not include much measuring anyway, is in metric units, in those few places along the way where I actually take note of the volume (nothing weighed, so it’s all cubic centimeters or milliliters). Otherwise you need only be able to count, and use a very sharp knife without injuring yourself, and a rolling pin (I prefer a French pin, which is a healthy length of hardwood, rounded on the ends and of uniform circumference, about the size of a very fat broom handle, but shorter, maybe two feet).
Leek and Chard Tart (with optional goat cheese)
For the crust (pâte brisée)
350 grams All-purpose flour (yes, I know I said I didn’t weigh anything, but I use a liter graduate that’s marked variously for the actual ingredient being measured, so there’s a scaled line for flour, for sugar, for water, etc., with the volume being measured indicated in grams if it is a dry ingredient—I’ve never seen such a graduate in the ‘States, so you may, indeed, have to get out the kitchen scale). On another note: the flour in French supermarkets is softer than American all-purpose flour—less gluten—and you might want to consider adding a small amount of cake flour to replace and equal amount of the all-purpose; all in all, however, the flour from King Arthur (Sands & Taylor’s venerable brand from Vermont) should work fine without any tampering or tinkering;
175 grams 82+ (or higher)-butter-fat unsalted butter (butter is sold by weight, so I guesstimate from the total full packet—usually 250 or 500 grams—approximately what fraction is the amount I need)
several tablespoons of iced water
Optional: granulated sea salt
In a food processor, add the butter cut into medium-size bits (about a teaspoon apiece) to the flour in the bowl, using the conventional metal-blade. Add a pinch or two of salt if you like.
In bursts, combine the butter and flour until all of it is about the consistency of coarse meal.
While operating the processor in bursts, add the iced water (keep the ice out of the processor) in tiny amounts, until the mixture forms clumps that adhere naturally to one another. Do NOT allow the mixture to form a single mass, usually taking the form of a rough ball trying to whir around the angular force of the spinning blade.
Dump out the dough onto a sheet of wax paper or plastic wrap. Trying to handle the dough as little as possible (keeping the heat from your fingers and hands away from it), work the dough into a single rough ball. Dust your hands in flour if necessary and work it only until it doesn’t stick to your skin and the surface is relatively smooth. It should end up about the size of an American softball. Wrap it in plastic wrap. Place it in the refrigerator for about an hour.
For the filling
A bunch of very large leaves, with stalks intact, maybe four or five in all, of Swiss Chard, the all-green kind
Four medium sized leeks
Five large eggs
One cup whole milk
30-35 cc crême fraîche
3/4-1 cup grated Emmental cheese
3/4-1 cup grated Cantal cheese (actually you can use almost any combination of semi-hard cheeses: Gruyere or Comté keeps it in the European family, or Gouda, Leerdammer, Jarlsberg, or even cheddar)
Extra-virgin olive oil, sufficient to sauté the chard and the leeks
3-4 Tablespoons of nigella (also called black cumin), an interesting mild spice that will actually help dispel some of the natural bitterness of the leeks, while adding a certain sweetness that goes well with the custard that encases the vegetables
Whole nutmeg, with grater
2-3 teaspoons of dried thyme
Optional A log of fresh chevre, about 7-8 inches long and about 1-1/2 inches in diameter, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
11" fluted tart pan, one piece, preferably Teflon® coated inside and out (the type I described with very high sides, about 1-1/2 inches); if you can’t, improbably, find a non-stick coated tart pan of these dimensions, use any tart pan that fills the bill, and butter the inside generously before inserting the dough as described below
Large sauté pan
Three non-reactive bowls (stainless or ceramic)
Two plates larger than 11" in diameter
Heat the oven to around 375-400 degrees Fahrenheit (it’s really not critical, and don’t be a baby about this; I cook in France on a French stove, whose oven control, like all French oven controls, has a dial numbered one to ten—actually in numerals, 1-10—and I cook in a medium-hot oven, around 6, and believe me, it’s a really good oven, or at least it’s a very expensive one, and I know it never delivers the same temperature twice; remember cooking may seem like science, and this is the bullshit a lot of recent books tell you, but it’s all art, and heart, and instinct… Just pay attention, that’s the main thing). Put the rack you will use in the middle of the oven.
While the pâte brisée dough is chilling, clean the leeks in your usual method after cutting off the dark green portion of the heads, and cutting off the soft curly roots, well into the white stalk. Slice into "roundels" about 1/8-inch thick. Set aside in a bowl.
With a very sharp knife, cutting as close to the white stalk as possible, separate the green leaf of the chard from its stalk. Cut off the wide end of the stalk, to remove any dried-out portion. Set aside the stalks. Stack the leaves, minus the stalks, on top of one another. Fold in half length-wise, and loosely roll the leaves into a huge "cigar" of chard. Cut the chard crosswise, through all the leaves at once, into slices about 1/4-inch wide. Set aside in a separate bowl.
Stack the chard stalks, and from the thin pointy end, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices toward the wide-end, until you have about a cup of sliced stalks, and add to the bowl with the chard leaf slices.
In a large sauté pan, heat EVOO, at least three tablespoons, and no more than 1/4 cup, over medium heat. Throw in the chard and stir with tongs or a wooden mixing blade (or silicone rubber spatula… let’s not get too technical here), until it is all coated with oil and cooking well, but not too quickly. Throw in a few pinches of sea salt, and grind a few grinds of fresh ground black pepper into the pan. The chard leaves will wilt immediately. Stir a few times. Cover lightly, but keep watching it. The stalk slices will ultimately turn translucent and get limp. The whole concoction will reduce significantly in volume. Without burning anything, cook until you are satisfied it is well-cooked. Transfer back to the bowl, and remove all of the chard with a slotted spoon or skimmer, leaving as much oil behind in the pan as possible.
Top up the oil a bit with more EVOO. You’ll need a bit more for the leeks than the chard, as the volume of leeks is greater. Heat the oil, and add the leek roundels. Add salt and pepper to your preference. Stir well with your instrument of choice, and let the leeks cook covered until they are quite limp. They will also reduce in volume, though not as significantly as the chard. The leeks will give off a lot of liquid. Uncover, and stirring, turn up the heat a tad, to drive off the liquid (mainly water) from the leeks. Do not burn, and try not to brown the leeks significantly if at all. No tragedy if you do brown them a little. When done, again using the slotted spoon or skimmer, remove the leeks, leaving as much oil behind as possible, and put the leeks into the bowl with the cooked chard. Set aside to cool.
Crack all the eggs whole into a bowl, suitable for whisking. Whisk the eggs well, until beaten into a froth of a uniform color. Add the milk, the ctême fraîche, the nigella, and the thyme, in no particular order. Grate maybe a 1/2-3/4 of a teaspoon of the nutmeg into the bowl as well. Don’t go nuts with the nutmeg. It takes an experienced hand to add enough for nuance, without adding so much that you actually taste the nutmeg in the finished dish. It should help lend an indefinable nuttiness to the flavor overall. Under-grate if you’re not sure or just plain nervous about these things.
Mix all the ingredients in the bowl until uniform, and then dump in the grated cheeses and mix some more. Set aside.
Remove the ball of chilled dough from the fridge, and place on a floured rolling cloth (get one; I know you probably don’t have one, because none but the fatally serious cooks do, so get one; a light canvas is best, because most durable; probably the on-line shop that King Arthur has on its site will have one available). Gently beat the top of the ball all over with the rolling pin ("gently" is the key word here) until it begins to flatten. Turn the flattened ball over and continue gently to tap it all over uniformly, until it has become a very fat disc.
Now begin to roll with the pin. Roll a few times in one compass direction, and then roll a few times in a compass direction 90° (you know, right angles) to the first direction you used. Then at 45° to that direction, and then at right angles again to this last direction. In short, roll it out uniformly, switching directions every half-minute or so, so it retains a more or less circular (as opposed to oval) shape. Keep rolling until it’s about 1/4-inch thick. Then roll some more so that it’s incrementally thinner (don’t get obsessive; incrementally means noticeably, but that’s all; just get it a little less than 1/4-inch thick).
You should have a more or less round piece of flattened dough significantly and hence comfortably larger than the diameter of the tart pan.
If you did this right, you should be able to lift the edge of the dough and simply fold it in half over itself. Keep right on going if there were no hitches (if you used a floured rolling cloth, nothing will be sticking to anything else), and lift the dough folded in half and place it on top of the tart pan, so the straight edge of the dough is right on the diameter of the pan. Carefully, if not gingerly, unfold the dough so it covers the entire tart pan, and gently, gently (gently!) lift the edges of the dough and let the dough drop down the fluted sides of the pan. The idea is to get as much dough of a single layer into the pan, covering the bottom and the sides.
Gently push the dough into the flutes of the sides of the pan. Be careful that the dough fits into the inner circumference of the pan where the sides join the bottom. In short, the dough should conform, like a skin, to the inside surfaces of the pan. Keep the extraneous dough draped on the outside over the edges of the pan. Once you’re satisfied that as well as possibly can be, the dough is touching all surfaces of the inside of the pan, take the rolling pin and roll it over the pan, thereby "slicing" off the extraneous dough like a big ring, using the edge of the pan as the slicer. Dispose of the extra dough. Set the pan and the dough aside.
Add the cooked vegetables in the bowl where they’ve been cooling to the egg-dairy-spice-herb mixture, and stir thoroughly until uniform.
(Optional step) Take the rounds of chévre and symmetrically place in the bottom of the tart pan, more or less covering as much of the area of the dough in the bottom as you can. You should be able pretty much to cover most of the bottom with goat cheese rounds.
Carefully and slowly pour the contents of the filling from the bowl into the tart pan, with the aid of a silicone rubber spatula to spread the filling evenly. If you did this right, and if I am not a complete nincompoop, it will miraculously just fill the tart pan. It’s also a miracle to me, and it always just fills the tart pan. And I swear, I measure nothing but the flour.
(Special bonus, secret optional step: I’ve only done one or the other of these, but once) Sprinkle the top with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese uniformly. Just a little all over. Or take bits of butter and dot the top evenly. Not a lot of butter either. You could go crazy and do both. But like I said, I usually do neither.
Place in the middle of a medium-hot oven and watch it once you get past about a half-hour of cooking. It will have started to puff up by then. It should take no longer than 50-55 minutes to brown to the degree in the photo. In any event, it should be a nice uniform medium brown. Not light, not dark, but medium.
Remove the pan with the finished tart to a rack, or just put it on top of an unlit burner on the stove, just so air can circulate underneath. After at least a half-hour, but more like an hour, take one of those really big plates and put it upside down on the top of the pan. Turn the whole shebang over. Don’t be nervous. Lift the tart pan from the tart. Place the other dish upside down on the tart’s bottom, and turn the whole shebang one more time. You’re done. You can eat it hot, but it’s better warm, and it’s great at room temperature.
Serve with a very fresh salad of lettuce, tomato, and sweet onion sliced very thin, with a home-made vinaigrette.