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Vegetable tart stars in many meals

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the past year at two different French restaurants, I enjoyed a delicious Provencal vegetable tart interpreted in slightly different ways. At Les Pyramides in the town of Vienne, outside Lyon, I sampled a beautiful little tart filled with a savory custard mixture and topped with cooked fresh artichoke hearts, zucchini, tomatoes and fennel. I ordered a similar creation at La Ferme Saint Simon, a Parisian restaurant, where eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini and chevre made up the garnish.

The delectable flavors and exquisite presentation of this dish came to mind recently as I was looking at an impressive bounty of fresh vegetables in a local market. I loaded my cart with produce and returned to my kitchen determined to reproduce a similar creation for an upcoming potluck picnic with friends.

I prebaked a butter-rich pastry crust and filled it with eggs mixed with creamy goat cheese, whipping cream, sour cream and a seasoning of cayenne pepper. After placing the tart in the oven again to cook the filling, I sliced zucchini, yellow squash, fennel and a sweet red pepper, and then sauteed these vegetables quickly in olive oil for the topping. I was delighted that my version, which I prepared as a single large tart instead of small individual ones, resembled the French originals in both taste and appearance.

For our picnic I offered the tart at room temperature as a first course. Though it can easily serve eight when served as an opener, five of us managed to eat the whole pie in a matter of minutes.

This week I plan to offer the savory tart as a main course at lunch for out-of-town friends stopping by for a quick visit; a salad and dessert will complete the menu. I also think this Provencal invention would be ideal for a brunch where it could be complemented by a plate of thinly sliced prosciutto, a tossed salad, some fresh fruit and a warm, crusty baguette.

I'm sure I'll think of even more ways to use this versatile recipe when entertaining. I can serve the tart cool in hot weather or warm in cold weather, and it can begin or anchor a meal easily. Best of all, this is a dish that can be made completely in advance, so there's no last- minute work.

Provencal Vegetable Tart

Makes 8 first-course or 4 to 6 main-course servings.

CRUST:

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small chunks

3 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening, chilled and cut into small chunks

About 4 tablespoons ice water

FILLING:

5 ounces creamy goat cheese

1/2 cup whipping or heavy cream

1 / 4 cup sour cream

1 / 8 teaspoon salt

generous dash cayenne pepper

3 eggs, lightly beaten

TOPPING:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1/2 -inch julienne strips

1/2 medium fennel bulb, tough

core cut out and discarded and fennel cut lengthwise into 1/2 -inch slices

1 small zucchini (5 to 6 ounces), halved lengthwise and cut into 1/2 -inch slices

1 small yellow squash (5 to 6 ounces), halved lengthwise and cut into 1/2 -inch slices

5 small cherry or grape tomatoes, quartered lengthwise

salt to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

To prepare crust, add flour, salt, butter and shortening to food processor fitted with metal blade. Pulse until dough resembles coarse meal. With machine running, add enough ice water through feed tube to form moist clumps. (You may not use all of water.) Gather dough into ball. Flatten into disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate 30 minutes.

Roll dough out on lightly floured surface into 12-inch round. Carefully transfer to 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Trim overhanging dough to 1 inch. Then fold overhanging dough in and press to form double-thick sides. Pierce bottom of dough with fork. Wrap tart in plastic wrap and freeze 30 minutes.

Arrange rack at center position and preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake crust until golden brown, piercing with fork if crust bubbles, about 20 minutes. Remove and cool 5 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 375 degrees.

Meanwhile, to prepare filling, in mixing bowl, whisk together cheese, whipping cream, sour cream, salt, pepper and eggs. Pour in shell and bake until filling is set, about 25 minutes. Remove and cool 10 minutes.

To prepare topping, heat oil in large, heavy skillet over medium heat. When hot, add red pepper and fennel. Saute, stirring, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add zucchini and squash and saute, stirring, 4 minutes more or until all vegetables are tender. Remove from heat and stir in tomatoes. Season generously with about 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Mound vegetables on top of tart and sprinkle with basil. If serving warm, serve within 30 minutes. If serving at room temperature, tart can be prepared 4 hours ahead; leave, uncovered, at cool room temperature.

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