Saturday, April 12, 2014

It’s Spring – Time to Stretch a Little
What’s cooking? Tomato Tarte Tatin

About a year ago, my hubby and I connected with a group of acquaintances who wanted to create gourmet dinners with good wines. As you know, the Kitchen Goddess has never been particularly shy; but she’s also not what you’d describe as hard-core competitive. And with a gourmet dinner for which each person produces a dish, there’s a certain element of competition that just naturally creeps in. It’s a lot of fun, but slightly nerve-wracking in the process.

Now if you’re having a dinner party on your own, you arrange the menu with an eye toward balance – focusing attention on one or two items – the entrée and the dessert, say – while the rest of the dishes stay simple and straightforward. But with each chef providing only one dish, it’s a bit like the finale of a fireworks show – excess everywhere you look. I’d provided the main course to the previous dinner, and hadn’t been even a little hungry by the time we served it.

So for the most recent of these dinners, it was my turn to provide the salad, and I was determined to deliver something light. The theme: French. I searched my French cookbooks, wondering all the while what a French salad looked like. For much of what I found, the ingredients were either impossible to find (pistachio paste? black truffle juice?) or beyond what I think of as my skill set. I tell myself nothing is really beyond my skill set – but some skills I’m just not interested in mastering. I began to get frustrated.

Then I found it. A version of tarte tatin, made with tomatoes. The classic tarte tatin is made with apples, arranged in a pinwheel pattern with the crust baked on top so as not to get soggy; then the whole thing is turned upside down to serve. This tomato version was in Daniel Boulud’s Chef Daniel Boulud: Cooking in New York City. I got the book because I loved the photos, never really planning to make much from it. But there I was, under duress, and I decided to see if I could stretch a little and make this really interesting looking dish. Read the instructions, see what made it seem difficult. And what I discovered was that nothing on the page was actually hard. Lots of ingredients – which you know I love – and lots of steps; but it looked gorgeous, and light, with an interesting mix of tastes and textures. I can do this. I just have to give myself enough time.

Let me say here that I was right. It was completely doable and swoon-worthy. Also completely elegant. The acidity of the tomatoes melded perfectly with the creamy goat cheese. The caramelized onions balanced those tastes with a hint of sweetness, and the puff pastry made a perfect platform for the presentation without changing the flavor. The frisée salad added a cool freshness that worked perfectly with the warm tart. I would make it again in a heartbeat. In fact, we had one tart left over – you’d be a fool not to make an extra in case one fell on the floor or suffered some other disaster – and my husband and I devoured it when we got home. Yes, that good.

You should try this. Try it with a meal that is otherwise simple, straightforward, and easy. Make it the first course to a menu of grilled steak, baked potatoes, and roast asparagus. Or roast leg of lamb, wild rice, and steamed broccoli rabe. It's good to push yourself occasionally, and this dish is well worth the effort.

Moreover, much can be done ahead. The pistou, the puff pastry circles, the caramelized onions, and the herbed goat cheese can all be made at least a day in advance. The tomatoes and the salad have to be managed on the day of the meal, but the tomatoes can sit in their little tart pans for a couple of hours before you bake them. And the assembly is fast and easy. Stack it up, flip it over, and voilà. Your guests will think you’ve been secretly going to culinary school.

When I penned this post, it was late at night and my resident wino was asleep. So I punted and told you we served this dish with a white wine from the Languedoc region of France. The wino is now awake, so I have a correction. The wine recommended by Boulud's book was a Côteaux du Languedoc, a low-acid blend of Roussane and Marsanne from the south of France. We tasted that one and liked it, but liked even more the wine we ended up serving, a 2010 J.L. Chave Selection Saint-Joseph Céleste, another Roussane-Marsanne white but from the Rhône region. I know this is more information than anyone wanted, but when I ask my husband about wine, this is the sort of answer I get.

Tomato Tarte Tatin

Adapted from Chef Daniel Boulud: Cooking in New York City

Makes 8 salad course servings.

Special equipment needed: 8 4-inch tart molds, a mandoline slicer, a 4-inch round biscuit cutter

Part 1: The Pistou Sauce
Can be made several days ahead.

2 bunches fresh basil (about 8 ounces), leaves only
1 small clove garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon pignoli nuts, lightly toasted
1 rounded teaspoon grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Dump the basil into the water and blanch 2 minutes. Drain the leaves and run them under cold water to stop cooking. Remove the leaves to paper towels and squeeze dry.

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth, about 2 minutes. Refrigerate in an airtight container.

Part 2:  The Herbed Goat Cheese
Can be made a day or two ahead.

The pistou in the small bowl, the herbed goat cheese -- which uses the pistou -- in the larger.

4 ounces fresh goat cheese, softened at room temperature for 30 minutes
2 teaspoons mascarpone cheese
2 teaspoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons Pistou Sauce (from Part 1, above)
2 tablespoons shallots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chives, finely chopped
1 teaspoon garlic, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper

In a small bowl, stir together all ingredients, adding salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate in an airtight container, but remove and bring to room temperature 30 minutes before serving.

Part 3: The Caramelized Onions
Can be made a day or two ahead.

Use the mandoline to slice the onions nice and thin.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium yellow onions (about 7 ounces each), thinly sliced
4 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
½ teaspoon sugar
salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large skillet (not non-stick), melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the onions and thyme and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes. As you stir, scrape up the “fond” that collects on the bottom of the pan and stir it into the onions. After about 20 minutes, you may need to add a tablespoon or two of water to deglaze the pan (i.e., dissolve the fond) as you cook. This process will turn the onions brown. Stir the sugar into the onions and continue to cook them for another 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding water (a tablespoon at a time) as needed. You want the onions to reach a deep brown color, without burning. (N.B. Boulud claims this takes only 10-15 minutes. Baloney.)

The onions go from this...

... to this.
Check seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate in an airtight container.

Part 4: The Puff Pastry
Can be made a day ahead.

A confession: I forgot to photo the pastry rounds. These are from a dessert I made and are smaller, but you get the idea.

1 pound frozen puff pastry sheets
1 egg, whisked with 2 teaspoons water

Preheat oven to 400º.

On a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the puff pastry to a 3/16-inch thickness. Using a 4-inch round biscuit cutter, cut the dough into 8 discs. Place the discs on a parchment-lined baking sheet and refrigerate 15 minutes.

Use a fork to prick the surface of the dough, and brush the tops of the discs with the egg wash. Bake in the center of the oven until golden brown, 10-12 minutes. Cool the discs on a rack, then store them in an airtight container – not in the refrigerator.

Kitchen Goddess Notes on frozen puff pastry:
1. Remove the sheets from the box and defrost separately for 40 minutes on the kitchen counter,  or re-wrap in cellophane and defrost overnight in the refrigerator. While you wait, chill your rolling pin, pan, and biscuit cutter in the fridge.
2. Work with one sheet at a time, storing the other sheet in the fridge.
3. As a test, I made 3 batches of these, and had best outcomes when I placed a second piece of parchment on top of the discs (after pricking and brushing with egg wash) and used a second pan of the same size on top of that, as a weight to keep the discs from puffing up. I baked the discs for 8 minutes then removed the top pan and parchment before baking the final 4 minutes. If you use a convection oven setting, you’ll only need a total of 11 minutes.

Part 5: The Tomatoes
Start early enough in the day to allow for the slices to drain 2-3 hours before assembling.

Use a mandoline for the tomatoes, too, so you get nice, even slices.
10 large plum tomatoes, cut crosswise into rounds ⅛-inch thick (save the ends of the tomatoes for some other dish)
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
olive oil for greasing the bottoms of the tart molds

To remove excess water from the tomato slices, place them in a single layer on baking pans lined with 2-3 layers of paper towels. Season lightly with salt, and place the pans in the refrigerator for 2-3 hours.

Grease the bottoms of the tart molds with the olive oil. Using about 12 slices per tart, arrange the tomato slices in the molds in an overlapping circle. Season with salt and pepper, and place the pans on a rimmed baking sheet. Set aside until you are almost ready to serve. (The tarts can stay this way for a couple of hours.)

It might take a little practice to get the pinwheel effect, but it's not hard. These tart molds are paper -- fine for use if you're baking the tarts soon after assembling them. Otherwise, they tend to flatten out and you have to replace them. And yes, that's what I had to do.

Part 6: The Frisée Salad
The dressing can be made the day before, and the salad ingredients can be prepped and refrigerated separately in small bowls a couple of hours in advance.

Frisée  also known as curly endive  looks like a small, furry green animal. The darker outside leaves tend to be bitter. If you can't find frisée, use baby arugula or mache.

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 small heads frisée, white, yellow and pale green parts only, trimmed
8 small white mushrooms, thinly sliced
½ cup Kalamata olives (10-15, depending on size), pitted and sliced
16 cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons chervil leaves
8 chives, cut in ½-inch pieces
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Whisk together the oil and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste.


Preheat the oven to 350º. Let the goat cheese sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.

Bake the tarts 10 minutes in the center of the oven. Remove the pans and, using the back of a spoon, lightly press down on the center of each tomato pinwheel to flatten.

While the tarts are baking, warm the caramelized onions (30 seconds in the microwave).

Toss together the salad ingredients in a medium bowl. Add the oil/lemon juice to taste (I used about half) and season with salt and pepper to taste.

While the tomato slices are still warm in their pans, place a rounded tablespoon of the goat cheese in the center of each. Spoon the warm caramelized onions (you’ll have about 1 rounded tablespoon per tart) over the herbed goat cheese, and top with a disc of puff pastry.

Invert the tarts onto the center of each plate and remove the mold. Place a small mound of the dressed salad on the side of the plate, and drizzle the pistou sauce around the plate.

Serve immediately.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Kristina -- I thought of you as I labored my way through styling all this photography!