French Tomato Tart
This week I saw the first promise of tomato season. A few brightly colored cherry specimens were brought home from the local market, as well as the more standard varieties. I was down in Gascony visiting my friend Kate Hill, and her photographer friend Tim Clinch was there preparing to lead a photography workshop. Looking for something tempting and colorful, tomatoes seemed the obvious choice as willing subjects.
In addition to the profusion of flowers plucked from the lush garden by the canal du Midi, the tomatoes had their moment in front of the camera. But once the participants stopped clicking, we grabbed them and put them where they rightfully belong: In the kitchen.
In France, tarts are not considered “special occasion” fare, and if you’re invited to someone’s house for a meal, even the most inept home cook will make a quiche or tarte salée, which will surprise you when they present a stunning tart à table, looking just about as good as anything whipped up from the local bakery.
True, some cooks here cheat a bit and use pre-purchased pâte brisée, which you can buy in the supermarket refrigerator case where it’s sold rolled up and boxed like plastic wrap. However I will concede that it does make quick work of making a savory tart and on more than one occasion I’ve been duped by someone, whose tart I’ve complimented, which prompted what I call “The Garbage Can Confessional”: when someone has to fess up and extract an empty box from the poubelle, usually from Picard, France’s popular frozen food chain.
I’ve not bought or used the pre-made stuff, however tempting it might be (!) but this dough is as easy as pie to make and roll out. And by the time it takes to go to the store and buy the dough, you can make this. I haven’t tried it with the French tart dough recipe but Kate assured me it would work with either an unbaked or pre-baked tart shell.
Unlike other savory tarts, such as the Herbed Ricotta Tart, this one has no custard or cream added; it’s just sliced tomatoes, fresh herbs, and sliced rounds of soft goat cheese, which get browned on top. Without a rich custard, the taste and texture of the tomatoes doesn’t get lost. But the fresh goat cheese is wonderful, especially when it gets all crusty-brown on top, and warm and creamy-soft inside. You could swap out another cheese that you like, such as comté, haloumi, or fontina, or another favorite fromage which melts well.
Ditto with the fresh herbs. A few steps outside of her always-buzzing kitchen are big bunches of herbs growing in verdant, leafy profusion. Thyme, variegated two-color sage, lovage, and savory are well-represented, but I was especially pleased to find fresh oregano, which for some reason is elusive in Paris.
So when she wasn’t looking, I clipped a few sprigs (ok, more than a few sprigs), which I squirreled away in my suitcase. Along with the homemade red wine vinegar and foie gras that she did give me. Plus I had some bitter chestnut honey that I picked up at the market in Cahors. (And, of course, a trip to the local antique market yielded me a few vintage wine glasses and Kate scored three gorgeous old French jam jars for just €5 a pop.)
I’m not a fan of sweet-savory cooking—with a few exceptions, most notably glazed Korean chicken wings, but when I saw the sticky jar of brusque miel de ronce (wild blackberry honey) on her counter, I suggested drizzling a bit over the tart just before baking. We had a bit of dough leftover, so it got rolled out and we made a mini-tart to give it a try. And it was a big hit.
But the real stroke of genius, I think, is the layer of mustard you spread on the tart, which provides a spicy back-bite to the baked tomato slices. You can go as easy or as generous as you want. The French love their Dijon mustard so don’t be shy: a layer that’s a thick as what you’d spread on a sandwich is just about right.
Perfect hot from the oven, or mighty good at room temperature as well, this is perfect summertime fare. You could pair it with the proverbial leafy green salad or go whole hog and serve it on a buffet with PLTs (Pig, Lettuce, and Tomato sandwiches). But in my mind, the best accompaniment are glasses of rosé over ice. And from the number of bottles we went through that afternoon, no one seemed to disagree.
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