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Tarte a l’oignon

December 9, 2006

I produced a business plan for a pie shop many years ago which was cleverly named “pi.” Yes. Pi like the number 3.14etc, or Pi like the black and white mathematical thriller by Darren Aronofsky which if you haven’t seen I highly recommend. Nothing says fun like a thriller involving a migraine-prone mathematician with a solution for pi in his brain being chased by Hasidic Rabbis and Wall Street types. Anyway, back to the pie shop, the point of the pie shop was the elevation of both simple cakes and quick breads to the classier level of pies and tarts. My feeling at the time was one of “You eat cake to feel better, but you eat tarts and pies because life is already good.” I don’t know if that makes much sense to you…but it resonated with me at the time.

This might not be the most successful introduction into the artistry of the pie, but what I’m getting at here is the fine line between a cake and a pie, between a pie and a tart, and between eating well and eating fantastically well. It’s always about the grey areas, isn’t it?

Most of my culinary successes over the years have come from the grey areas between cuisines, between the definitive on either side of a divide. Call it the result of having been raised in the gastronomic mash-up that is New Jersey, but I’ve always had a predilection for food with real substance. My personal fusion has more to do with maintaining the semblance of a cultural line in the sand without getting too heavy about it. It is, after all, just food.

A friend of mine recently admitted that he had never had an onion tart and whoa, I was shocked. To me, the onion tart has always been a natural extension of the sweetness of thoroughly cooked onions. You can also add a multitude of items to it for embellishment, from bacon and chives to sliced brie or cheddar cheese. It’s a pretty predictable leap to make, I think.

But I guess the onion tart lives in one of those grey areas for some people. Is it fish or fowl? Sweet or savory? I don’t know. You be the judge.

In both the spirit of all things great and grey, my simple Tart a l’oignon aux poireaux or, Onion and Leek Tart (Pie):

Note: You will need one pre-baked 10″ tart shell, about 1″ – 1 1/2″ tall with fluted sides for this recipe. A store-bought pie shell would perhaps suffice, depending on where you bought it. The story behind the tart shell is rather long and complicated, so we’ll keep that for another post. For now though, most any tart shell will do. Tender or chewy, flaky or granular, just so long as it’s decently buttery and well-made.
Prebaked Shell

* 7 small to medium yellow onions
* 3 stalks leeks of about 1″ diameter
* 3 cloves garlic
* 2T Extra Virgin Olive Oil
* 2T Un-salted butter
* Fresh thyme and rosemary
* 2T Parsley
* 4T Freshly grated Reggiano, Pecorino or Grana Padana (you could also use a nice and dry cave aged gouda)
* 1 Large egg
* 1/3C Milk, half and half, or Cream
* Salt and Ground Pepper to Taste

Here we go…

* Pre-heat the oven to 375F.
* Stem, peel, halve and slice the onions.
* Set a medium to medium-high flame under a heavy bottomed pot such as a 6qt Le Creuset.
* Add the olive oil to the pot.
* Add the onions and season promptly with two to three large pinches of kosher salt and stir well. Leave to cook over med-high heat, stirring occasionally. Depending on how quickly you can slice the leeks, you may want to lower the heat under the onions.
* Trim the green tops of the leeks and reserve. (When blanched and pureed, they can help make some delicious Leek Mashed Potatoes but I’ll post that recipe another time.) Slice the leeks in half lengthwise and then finely slice them crosswise. You should have around 1 1/2C of sliced leeks. Place them in a large mixing bowl and run copious amounts of cold water over them. Strain and reserve.
* By the time you are through with the leeks, the onions should have softened considerably. Add the leeks. Do not worry if they are not dry as you will want that addition of moisture anyway. Stir well and allow to continue cooking.
* Mince the garlic and add it to the leek/onion mixture.
* The reason the heat needs to be maintained at a med-high level is to encourage caramelization. Now before anyone comments that slow-heat is a sure fire way to achieve high level caramelization too, the higher heat in this case will start to caramelize the sugars on the outer edges of the onions before they turn completely to mush. Anyway, once the caramelization has begun to develop along the bottom of the pan, periodically add water by about 1/8th C per time to deglaze. If you want to use some white wine for one of the deglazings, that would be a fine addition. Once you have deglazed in this manner twice, turn the heat down to low for the remainder of the cooking.
* While the leek/onion/garlic mixture is cooking, mix well one egg, pinch salt, 17 cranks of fine white pepper and 1/3 C milk and reserve.. You can use heavy cream or half and half for a slightly richer tart.
* Assuming that the onion mixture has been cooking for approximately 20-25 minutes in total, it should be thoroughly cooked, evenly caramelized and not quite entirely, but fairly well broken down. Remove from heat and pour the mixture into a large mixing bowl. Finely chop the parsley and it along with the butter and cheese to the onion mix. Stir continuously until the butter has been fully incorporated. I like to use a microplane for grating the cheese in this instance.
Nice looking cheese.
Tart Filling
* Place the entire bowl into the freezer if you have room, otherwise the fridge. Allow to cool, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes.
* Thoroughly combine the egg/milk mixture with the onions and pour into the middle of the prebaked tart shell. Spread evenly around with a rubber spatula and bake on a wire rack set about the middle of the oven.
Tart in the oven.
* The tart will rise slightly during cooking due to the egg, but will settle back down to a pleasing density once cooled. It should take around 30-40min depending on your oven. I would recommend turning it once or twice during that time. You will know it is nearly done when it is evenly browned across the whole surface.
* Sprinkle some additional parsley and grate some fresh cheese over the top once it has come out of the oven. Allow to cool to room temperature before slicing or serving. A fantastic accompaniement to this tart would be a crisp salad. Mixed greens, romaine hearts, maybe some arugula if it’s in season. Perhpas some sliced radishes and a squeeze of meyer lemon and you really don’t need much more than that.
Mmmm, delish.

What could you drink with this aside from water? Something delicious of course, but I might suggest a white wine with some real character. A nice and minerally Pouilly Fuisse perhaps by Louis Jadot, a Gruner Veltliner or a sharp and dry Riesling. Martinelli’s sparkling apple juice wouldn’t be a bad idea either…

Let me know how it turns out.

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