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Thursday, June 7, 2007

A Bounty of Produce

Years ago, I stumbled across a recipe for a mushroom tart in a magazine. There was something easygoing and warmly encouraging about the author's tone -- and the accompanying photo was GORGEOUS...a tangle of wild mushrooms, sauteed and crispy golden, strewn across a burnished, flaky puff pastry rectangle. What's not to love? I decided to add it as an appetizer at Thanksgiving that year. The tart baked up, golden, earthy and tasty in the extreme. The family awarded stellar reviews. (Don't you love when that happens?)

Some research on the source of the mushroom tart recipe led me to a cookbook by Englishman Nigel Slater. Let me just say this... the book -- Appetite -- changed my life in a way. Yes, Nigel loves using bacon (yum!), and butter (I'm with Julia Child on this one...LOVE BUTTER!) and all things wonderful...but, at its core, the philosophy of the book was refreshing. Cook what you want to eat! For me, it was as if someone had flung open a door and gust of summer breeze had rushed in. He set out some basic principles, stuff many already know: shop more frequently, keep pantry staples on hand, get down some basic techniques etc...but mainly, Nigel passed along a kind of confidence. Let your appetite guide you. What do you you want to eat today? is the subtitle. I was smitten. In London over Thanksgiving the following year, I found an autographed copy of his new book -- just published in the U.S. this spring -- Kitchen Diaries. Over the course of a year, he documented all his meals. A beautifully bound blog, if you will. I loved it, of course. Things like, "today...I fancy a chop" and his theory that "I love cooking for people after all these years because I rearely attempt too much" gave me a chuckle...and the candid entries where he admits to staring at the barren refrigerator and ordering "takeaway"...well, we've all been there. But what I found most intriguing were his regular mentions of a mysterious weekly 'organic sack' he pulled ingredients from... and how, what was in the bag guided what he would cook. It took me a while to figure out he was referring to a "share" advance purchase of seasonal produce from local farmers.

In my area -- the Midwest -- I tracked down a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture program. I chose Home Grown Wisconsin You become a member and pay a fee (in the range of $200 to $500) and then receive a season's worth of fruits and vegetables directly from local farms. Fresh eggs are available too. In my case, 'the box' is delivered to a convenient location in my city neighborhood, where I have the afternoon/evening to swing by and pick it up. Everything is ripe and ready to go, and recipes (they tell me) will be included at times for veg that may be unfamiliar. Some random canvassing of friends and family found a number of people who have participated for years (!) and are thrilled. My husband jokes about getting ready to eat rutabegas weekly, but the CSA's web-site even recognizes this concern and reassuringly offers a wide-ranging, extensive list of produce that will be delivered. Something about connecting directly with the growers makes me happy (no offense, Whole Foods). It feels like I'm actually doing something meaningful with the way we are eating. The idea driving CSA programs is that with a commitment in the fee you pay up front, the farmer can have a fixed amount of income that is guaranteed and helps them afford seeds and workers throughout the season.

What better way to echo Nigel's philosophy, than with a kitchen blog/diary of my, my first shipment will be in two weeks and I'll be posting my kitchen-adventures-with-swiss-chard here...the good, the bad AND the ugly!

As for The Mushroom Tart That Started It's the recipe and a side note: I've come across a number of recipes for savory, puff-pastry-based tarts over the past few years and have come to embrace them as a fantastic way to kick-off a meal. The main beauty is that Pepperidge Farm's frozen puff pastry sheets live in my freezer, ready and waiting to be topped with whatever I come up with (usually a variation on veg + something creamy, like cheese). Another recent favorite, is from Suzanne Goin's genius book, Sunday Suppers at Lucques. It's a tart with goat cheese and swiss chard. The thing that makes it crazy good is the current-onion-pine nut relish that goes along with it.

I had the good fortune to eat at Lucques last year in L.A. for my birthday. I should say "our" birthday since I share the date with one of my dearest friends, Bunny. It was one of my favorite meals of the year. The restaurant is chic and comfortable...the staff, knowledgeable, welcoming and professional. The food, incredibly delicious. (You know how it is when you look at the menu and want everything?!) Suzanne Goin even stopped by our table that evening, whereupon I was dumbstruck and mumbled what a fan I am of her cooking. My husband and friends still tease me. It was as if I had met a Beatle.

Mushroom Tart
adapted from Nigel Slater's Appetite (he actually calls this "a no-fuss puff-pastry vegetable pie") and you can too, provided you use a posh, British accent.

Serves 4

onions -- 4 medium-sized
butter, or Olive Oil -- 2-3 tablespoons
mushrooms -- 12 oz. any type. (I like a mix of wild mushrooms, cremini, chanterelles, along with some white button.)
fresh thyme -- 1 tablespoon, finely chopped
salt/pepper to taste
creme fraiche -- about 3/4 cup.
puff pastry -- one sheet if you want open-face tart, two if you want to seal it up like a pie
egg yolk, beaten with 1 teaspoon of cold water, for glazing the pastry

Peel and slice the onions into thin crescents. Cook slowly over med-low heat for about 20 minutes in the butter, or olive oil.
When the onions are golden and soft, add the mushrooms (sliced, if button, or roughly torn if wild) to the onion mixture in the pan, along with another tablespoon of butter or oil. Cook and stir occasionally until mushrooms become golden.

Pre-heat the oven to 400 F. degrees.

Season the mixture with salt, pepper and the chopped herbs, and stir in the creme fraiche, 1/4 cup at a time, using enough to get the creamy consistency you'd like. Creamy is better than too runny. (Extra thick is good if you are leaving the tart open-face.)
Let the mixture bubble for a couple minutes on low heat so it thickens and the flavors meld.

Roll out the puff pastry sheet(s) on a flour-dusted board or counter, into a rectangle, about 8 x 14 inches.

Open-face option: place the sheet on a flour dusted sheet pan. Score the edges with a fork or knife, for a decorative border, and brush with egg wash. Spread the mushroom mixture over the tart leaving a 1-1 1/2" border.

Pie option: place the sheet on a flour-dusted sheet pan. Brush egg wash along edges (for sealing up the two pastry pieces). Spread mushroom mixture over the tart. Place the second pastry sheet over the mushroom filling and seal the edges tightly. Brush top of pie with the egg wash and snip a couple vents in the center for the steam to escape.

Bake until the tart/pie puffs and is golden, about 25 minutes (although this varies oven to oven!!). Make sure you sneak a look at the underside of the tart before you turn the oven off - it should be golden.

Nigel has other suggestions for variations, one being a broccoli and gorgonzola version, which I am tempted to try.

Suzanne's tart is open face and uses a mixture of ricotta and egg as a the base, upon which you spread sauteed swiss chard and sprinkle with a crumbly goat cheese, like Bucheron.

The best part is -- the savory tart begs for experimentation.

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