Finally, good tomatoes have begun to show up in quantity at my neighborhood farmer’s market (and elsewhere). So we’re eating them sliced and salted, layered with goat cheese or mozzarella, paired with fresh basil and drizzles of balsamic vinegar. And, of course, gazpacho is everywhere.
But after loading up with some pretty good specimens, I was prodded to recall a lovely night a few years ago under a willow tree outside a country home in the Loire Valley of France. If I recall correctly, there was lavender in the yard, there was wine around the table and there was moonlight. Our friends served us charcouterie, a classic duck breast and a delicate, very tasty, savory tomato tart.
I couldn’t imagine that tart well enough to re-create it exactly, but the other day I consulted a handful of recipes — I’d never really made a pie — and set out on my own.
I took the easy route and made use of a frozen puff pastry and a ready-made pie crust, and brought both to room temperature. I lined two aluminum pie pans, one for each crust, and crimped the edges for a rough and rustic handmade look.
My kitchen mate wanted caramelized onions in the tarts, so I sliced a big yellow onion, heated up the iron skillet and sauted the onion in oil (a couple of tablespoons) and a sprinkling of sea salt. Twenty minutes later, I had some nicely browned specimens and set the onions aside to start building the tart.
I spread a good dollop of ricotta cheese in the bottom of one crust and combined ricotta and goat cheese in the other. Next came a layer of onions, over which I sprinkled some bits of fresh basil and rosemary.
I’d already sliced about four decent-sized tomatoes, and when I put down three or four pieces over the onions in one pie, it occurred to me I might have enough ingredients and pan depth to layer more onion, seasoning, some knobs of goat cheese and tomatoes into a richer, thicker concoction.
Along with the fresh herbs, I used sea salt, pepper and, in lieu of the nutmeg that one recipe called for, some Chinese Five-Spice seasoning, which always adds unexpected (and quite pleasant) accents of sweetness and sass.
I was a little worried what the extra depth meant for cooking time in a 375-degree oven, so I checked once or twice as they baked, mainly to make sure I wasn’t burning the crust. In just a bit over 30 minutes, the crust was nicely browned, so I pronounced the tarts done.
They’re probably better served fresh from the oven, but we took the pies to a party that night and put them out at room temperature. We’d sprinkled some basil and chives on top, which made a bright green and red presentation that seemed to announce the essence of summer.
I was a little disappointed when one of the first tasters, a young woman, peeled the tomatoes off her piece and averred that neither she nor her fiance liked them — Really? I said — but, she added, the rest of the tart was just great! Oh, well. Who could’ve predicted?
I don’t really know how my tarts would go over in the Loire Valley in the moonlight, but on this summer night in Kansas City, everyone else seemed to like the whole thing.