Last night, we ate dinner in the dining room, as the autumn is rapidly upon us and the warm, sensual evenings on the terrace have probably disappeared for this year. It is dark now, much earlier, and dinner was a little later than usual as my son had an early evening commitment. However, candles blazing, beautiful music in the background, everyone was soothed from a world-weary day. My son and his friend had harvested some Italian plums (which I adore) from our trees, and the dinner finished with a luscious plum tart and Chantilly cream flavored with a dash of pfumli, a plum brandy. Everyone went to bed charmed and comforted, even the chef. I consoled myself for the loss of my beloved summer and dining en plein aire with the delicious anticipation of the autumn harvest and the tremendous wealth of new foods which will soon arrive in the markets, but more significantly, may be foraged.
My son and his friend were very proud of their harvest, and the other foraging they had done yesterday afternoon. Along with the plums, they brought me a large amount of wild blackberries, which later today will be made into a pie. My son's friend is an expert forager in addition to a delightful young man, and knows the locations of every wild blackberry plant and apple tree near where we live. In the Spring, he brings his mother and me wild onions from secret places he has found in the woods, and I hope to teach him, along with my son, to recognize and harvest the dandelion greens, miners' lettuce and wild nettles which I harvested with my grandmother or my father, and which make fantastic food. Wild nettles in the Spring are fantastic, first blanched, and then sauteed with a little olive oil and garlic and tossed into fresh pasta. Their nutty flavor, complemented with a little Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, is delicious. He will likely come along the next time we go to Big Sur, where I hope to show them how to recognize chanterelles and morels on our property, which, like the wild herbs in the hills there, are abundant. (I have a secret dream that in our hidden oak grove may be discovered the magical truffles found in similar climates in Provence among the oaks, but I have yet to find or train a suitable truffle dog to sniff them out). These I might toss into a frittata, or into some fresh-cut pappardelle, or even make into a ragout and serve them with grilled levain toast brushed with olive oil and rubbed with garlic, or as a topping for a creamy polenta.
I rarely eat dessert, but the scent of the tart last night, set in the middle of the table as a centerpiece, was intoxicating. It brought immediately to mind so many memories: watching the school children line up in front of the bakeries in France or French Switzerland or in Vienna, the girls in their English-made Mary Jane shoes and the boys in their short school pants, buying a similar slice of tart for Le Gouter, the afterschool snack of most French schoolchildren. We have a little tea at The House which shall be Unnamed after school most nights, with a little Le Gouter of some sort, during which time we can chat about the day. My French-Swiss grandmother often made large sheet pans of these beautiful tarts to delight her visiting grandchildren, and every one of her grandchildren speaks of these memories. I make all sorts of tarts, sweet and savory, and with many different kinds of crust. I make them freeform and rustic, or baked in a fluted tart pan, or round on a baking sheet lined with parchement. I make savory tarts for Saturday lunch with fromage blank and carmelized leeks, or bits of leftover salmon and asparagus, or Spring onions and proscuitto, or ham and leek. There are as many variations as you have delicious "restes" in your refer. Having worked with some French pastry chefs enough so that they making of tart dough of many kinds is second nature, I still often use store-bought puff pastry, though I can make it easily. It is terrifically convenient and helpful to have in your freezer. Personally, I do not care for the readily available Pepperidge Farm brand, as it is not made with butter. I buy instead one of two available all-butter puff pastry, either in square sheet form from Trader Joe's (but made in France), or folded into thirds and packaged in a foil by Dufour, which is quite good as well, but more expensive.
If you would like to surprise your family with a simple and elegant dinner tonight, you can make a very simple version of these savory tarts yourself, using puff pastry. I should warn you at the outset, that though I own hundreds of cookbooks, I am not a huge fan of recipes. I did not learn to cook this way, but rather to master technique and to cook sensually: to taste and smell and touch the food I am cooking, and so to learn its ways. My grandmother rarely used a recipe, either, and when we would inquire of her how she made something, she would reply that we should watch her do it. Pressed for details, she would say, well, a little of this, and a dash of that, never any measurements. So when you cook with me, the approach might be a little different, but the results, I hope, will bear out my theory of learning. (Don't fear: I will give you measurements when they are needed). So think about what is delicious and seasonal in your market just now. As I have readers from various parts of the world, I do not want to focus simply on what is available where I live. An easy way to begin might be to do a little variation of an Alsatian tart, which I love, called Flamiche. So get a package of puff pastry, a little ham (preferably not laced with preservatives) and some leeks and a little gruyere cheese. Buy some fromage blanc (a fresh cheese similar to ricotta) or some fresh ricotta. You will need an egg, some olive oil,and a little thyme. This really is a very easy tart, so don't be intimidated. Buy a large can of plum tomatoes (not diced, the flavor is inferior), some chicken stock if you have none, and some fresh basil, and an onion. And finally, get some mesclun lettuces and a very ripe tomato for the salad, and some fresh fruit and choose two cheeses of different sort for your cheese plate, such as a creamy cheese like a brie or reblochon, and a nutty cheese like a Pont L'Eveque or even a blue cheese. As your fromagerie for suggestons. But the cheese should be contrasted, one with the other. If you don't have ingredients for to make a vinaigrette, you might want to read below, but no bottled dressings (Please!) or that awful mix which is added to oil and vinegar. Make your own. And as with all cooking, taste, adjust the balance and the seasoning (for vinegars have differing acidity), and taste again.
Now, here might be your menu for tonight:
Tomato-Basil Soup with grilled levain toast crouton
Fresh Seasonal Fruit and two cheeses
And so to begin, a little cup of tomato basil soup, which you can do very easily by sauteeing some onions in olive oil until wilted, adding a little garlic to the olive oil to perfume it (but don't let it brown or it will become bitter), adding a large can of plum tomatoes and four cups of chicken stock to this, along with a small handfull of basil, and simmer (Do Not Boil) for ten minutes. Then using a stick blender, puree the soup. Serve hot, drizzled with a little extra virgin olive oil and some grated parmigiano cheese (if you have it) and serve with a levain toast crouton across the cup, which has been brushed with olive oil, grilled, rubbed with the cut size of a garlic clove and a dash of seasalt. You can drizzle a little balsamic syrup on this, too, if you like. This is the first course. So light your candles and serve this while your tart is baking in the oven for the second time. Put out your nice wine glasses and water glasses, put on some restful music, and dinner is on.
While you are making the soup, turn on your oven to 375 degrees, and get out a sheet pan (Do not use the insulated kind) and line it with a sheet of parchement paper (I like the brown kind, as I have found the white paper often sticks). Then cut up your leeks (washing them thoroughly first to remove the dirt often trapped in the layers), by cutting the darker green part of the leek ends off, then cutting them longways in half, down the stock so that you have two long halfs. Then cut half moons from the ends of the stalks (you can cut two side by side quite easily), about 1/4 inch wide. Saute these in olive oil with a little butter and some seasalt over low heat until they just begin to carmelize and are a light brown color. Cut your ham slice into little pieces as well. Make your vinaigrette for the salad, which I often do simply with three parts olive oil, one part sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar, a little dijon mustard, some seasalt and pepper, all whisked together until a light emulsion is formed. If you want it creamy, you can add a little mayonnaise as well. Or, if you prefer a garlicky vinaigrette, let a cut up garlic clove rest in the vinaigrette to perfume the oil, and remove it just before your last whisking prior to tossing.
The one caveat I offer to using puff pastry for a tart it is that it really must be eaten the same day, as the cooked pastry, once stored overnight, tends to become soggy. This never seems to be an issue at my house, for my children adore these simple tarts and there is rarely any leftover. There are few simple rules to remember about puff pastry, and if you follow them, I promise you that you will have success. If you don't follow them, the results will be disappointing. First of all, the pastry must be put into the oven cold, so any work you do it must be done rapidly or you must rechill the pastry. Second the oven must be hot. Every oven varies, but I have found that 375 degrees usually yields the best results. I use my convection setting. Finally, when you brush the eggwash onto the pastry after the first baking, use care not to allow any of the egg to drizzle down over the edge of the pastry on to the parchement, as this will cause the pastry to adhere to the parchement and will prevent it from rising properly. If the pastry comes in square sheets, roll two sheets together to make a long tart, but don't stretch the pastry too much. Put it on your parchement lined baking sheet and using a little egg wash (one egg, lightly beaten with a little water) and a pastry brush, very lightly brush the edges of the tart. Fold over the edges, pinching the corners. Using the tines of a fork "dock" (poke little holes) all over the tart (but not on the edges). This will allow the tart to rise without creating large air bubbles that distort its shape and cause it to cook unevenly. Bake the tart in the oven for about 12 minutes or until golden brown (every oven varies so it may be slightly different) and well puffed.
While the tart is baking, lightly beat one egg and add it to about 1 1/2 cups of ricotta or fromage blanc cheese. Don't worry if you have less than this or a little more, it will just make the layer a little richer. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and some seasalt and freshly ground pepper and whisk this all together. Grate about a half cup of gruyere cheese on the larger holes of a box grater. Now, when the tart is golden, take it out of the oven and brush it all over with egg wash to create a little moisture barrier. Don't forget to brush the edges as well, so that they are golden and beautiful when they come out of the oven. Then spread your ricotta mixture all over the base of the tart, evenly distributing it. Sprinkle on your carmelized leeks, your diced ham and some fresh thyme (or dried if you can't find fresh), and then sprinkle on the grated gruyere cheese. Bake for 15-20 minutes until the cheese is puffed and the tart a deep golden color. Remove from the oven, let rest a minute and then you may cut it, if you don't wish to do this at table. Toss your salad (mesclun, to which you have added some cut up tomatoes, and if you like, a little shaved parmigiano reggiano), and serve it alongside the tart. After this course, you can bring out your beautiful plate of seasonal fruit and cheese and hand it round with little bread plates and knives for everyone to cut off what they desire.
All of this has put me in mind of summers at my grandmother's house, during which my cousins and I often foraged for things to eat from her large potager or the veritable orchards of various fruit trees on the property. There was something magical about the property where we often spent some of our summers. It was large, and had a fish pond, and many, many fruit trees, a spectacular panoramic view of Mt. Hood, which from the upstairs wrap around deck was almost close enough to touch, and was surely chosen to remind my grandparents of their beloved Alps. There were acres of woodlands to roam, and a river in which to fish for trout or raft with innertubes that cut through their property. We were allowed to roam free, and in a sense we were ferrell for the summer weeks there, except, of course, at dinner, when regardless of our ages, we were expected to arrive suitably dressed and to sit politely at the damask cloth-covered table and participate in a grown up dinner. As children, we might have a little wine, largely watered, and as we grew the percentage of wine increased and the water decreased. As my grandmother was a fantastic cook (she was French, of course), the food was always superb, but the chief aspect of her cooking was that it was completely seasonal. She cooked from her potager (vegetable garden), and from her orchards, or from the farms of berries which she and my grandfather owned, or from things she had canned herself. She might trade a flat of peaches for a chicken from a farmer she knew, or crates of berries for some wild turkey or a fresh ham, and she had a regular source for fresh eggs, but she rarely purchased any food. Since she did not drive, on the rare occasions when she needed something, my grandfather would go and procure it for her. In fact, as children this was often a frustration for us, as there was very little in the house to eat, and almost nothing in the refer save butter, which she only recently had begun to buy, having usually made her own. We could always forage for a perfectly ripe tomato, or a luscious peach or apricot from one of the trees, some filberts or root vegetables in the garden, or even find a bit of "restes" from last evening's dinner, but that was the sum of it. There was almost never any food in the house except that which had just been harvested and sat in the big fruit bowl on the table between meals, or on the counter in the little canning kitchen (the large kitchen upstairs was never used for this purpose). Yet she would cook wonderful breakfasts and these fantastic dinners each night, the tastes of which still haunt and inspire my cooking today, seemingly from nothing, but actually from Everything good.
In French Switzerland, when I went to stay with her there, we often visited the local farmers' market together, and I remember watching her charm the vendors with her manner and her insistence on top quality (she always secured the best). She could be immensely charming, and because of her knowledge of food and her insistence on the best quality, she was always treated with deference and respect. In her own way, she was 'formidable' as they French say, and she had a kind of noblesse oblige about her manner that was recognized. Alternately, She and I would go for a long walk into the woods just above the village, where she would find all sorts of wonderful things to use in her cooking. She and my tante Gabrielle (whom we called "Gaby") would transform these gleanings into magical meals, and often in the evenings, family from around the region would join us for a feast, candles blazing, blue smoke after dinner, and philosophy with the cognac libations. It was a magical time.
You can bring a little of this magic to your dinner hour tonight, with a little effort, but not too much, and you can vary the toppings according to your taste and what you have available. Once you make this tart you will find it goes very quickly the second time and thereafter. All this discussion of seasonality has put me in mind of varying concepts of time, the appreciation of which can often bring a deeper magic to life. In the Greek, time is referred to as Kronos, which as you know is the Greek god of time, and as Kairos. Kronos time is what we live with on a daily basis. It is measured by clocks, hours, minutes, and seconds. It often seems to be more of a jailer than a friend. There is rarely enough of it, and we feel stressed from its demands. Kairos time, on the other hand, flows gently -- allowing us to be in the moment. It is heaven breaking in, and often we experience this in the sacraments. I think the table is an excellent place to experience Kairos. We participate in kairos time, rather than racing to catch up with it. It is often referred to as God's timing, moments that nurture our souls, when we surrender our own need for control and allow him to Give to us what we need when we need it. To give us our daily bread. Too cook sensually and seasonally is to embrace Kairos, to pleasure in what we are given from the harvest and in season. It is cooking from the heart, in the moment, pleasuring in the process and the beautiful ingredients as much as the result, such that there is a time for every purpose under heaven.