Monday, August 15, 2011

Provence Inspires Me to Make My First Tart

 Creating a Leek and Dried Morel Tart
 My college friend Robin said, "People ask, what do you do in Provence? I always answer not much: go to the Provencal markets, bring home food, cook, do it again the next day." 

There is something about Provence, because it is a poly-culture agricultural environment, that brings out the cooking creativity, passion, and endless enthusiasm for cooking in everyone who lives there, regardless of nationality.

What is a poly-culture agriculture environment? The example I know best and have lived personally is Madison, Wisconsin. It has endless small family boutique food producers making small volumes of amazing specialty items.  These local farmers are rock stars in the community and the farmer's market is equivalent to a concert where everyone comes and applauds.

On the other hand, a mono-culture farm environment is like my home state of Iowa with lots of corporate farms producing one crop.  It doesn't create the same enthusiasm to take everything home and cook it up. You can't anyway, because they're raising grain for livestock.

To aid her in her cooking quests, my college friend Robin has collected cookbooks from all over the world in multiple languages while she was working all over the world.  I could pour over cookbooks for hours, couldn't you? So many of her books were new to me. One that she particularly used a lot was by Stephanie Alexander named "A Cook's Companion: The Complete Book of Ingredients and Recipes for the Australian Kitchen."  Robin specifically enjoyed that all the recipes were organized around their main ingredient.

I found myself responding to the daydream-inspiring cookbook "The Food and Flavors of Haute Provence" by Georgeann Brennan.  What a gorgeous, easy-to-use book!
 The smells! Oh, the smells!
 Leek and Dried Morel Tart
Right out of the Oven
On one of my first nights there, Robin and Jim invited over lovely friends for a dinner party al fresco.  While Robin prepared a magnificent veal roast, with beautiful potatoes and roasted fennel, I had picked out a recipe based on a single ingredient Jim and Robin had in abundance.  They had a friend in Malaysia who happened to be the world's largest exporter of morel mushrooms.  He had given them 4.5 kilos of dried morels for their own cooking.  As you can imagine, a dried morel mushroom does not weigh very much so the supply of this tasty mushroom was unusually large and just waiting for me to cook with it!

I've had veal, but can't say I've had a veal roast before this. It had been prepared with care by her local Cadenet butcher. Have you tried roasted fennel? This was something new to me too. It was delicious, so easy (she just sliced it in half, spiced it, and stuck it in the oven).  Plus, it's so healthy and pretty on the plate!
 The veal roast ready for carving
Robin's husband Jim
carves the roast
while Mark, a local winemaker, looks on

Leek and Morel Mushroom Tart
Although puff pastry, leeks, and dried morel mushrooms are the components of the tart, this is a versatile dish in which many substitutes are possible.  In France, supermarkets, even the small ones in the rural areas, have fesh or frozen puff pastry, which is also available in the United States, but not as readily.  Pizza dough is an alternative to the puff pastry.  Unlike puff pastry, it is easily made even by the most unskilled hands.

The delectable topping, with its undertone of sweetness from the leeks' natural sugar, is made of thin slices of leeks that have been simmered in a little butter, then combined with fresh goat cheese and rehydrated morels and seasoned with thyme.  one can substitute onions, which also have natural sugar, for the leeks, and dried cepes or shiitakes might be used in place of the morels, as might fresh mushrooms.

Although the tart makes a fine first course, I find that accompanied with a green salad and red wine it makes an excellent meal in itself.
25 dried morels, about 1/2 ounce
3 cups warm water
6 large leeks, carefully rinsed
2 Tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter
1 Tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 fresh bay leaves, or 1 dried
1/4 sour cream
1/4 cup crumbled fresh goat cheese
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 Tablespoon white wine
1/4 cup chicken broth
1 sheet prepared puff pastry, 10 x 12 inches and 1/4 inch thick, thawed if frozen
1) Put the dried mushrooms in 2 cups of the warm water to rehydrate them.  This will take about 15 minutes.  Finely slice the white parts of the leeks plus 1 inch of the pale green.
2) Meanwhile, melt 2 Tablespoons of the butter in a skillet or saucepan over medium heat.  When it is foamy, add the leeks and saute until translucent, about five minutes.  Add the thyme, bay leaves, and the remaining 1 cup warm water.  Cover and simmer until the leeks are nearly tender, about 15 minutes.  Remove the cover and continue to cook until virtually all of the liquid has evaporated, about 15 minutes longer.  Remove and discard the bay leaves.  Stir in  the sour cream and goat cheese, and add the salt and pepper.  the sauce should be creamy and thick.  Preheat an oven to 400 degrees F.
3) Drain the morels and cut them in half lengthwise.  melt the remaining teaspoon of butter in a small skillet over medium heat.  When it is foamy, add the morels and saute for 5 or 6 minutes.  Add the white wine and chicken broth and continue to cook until all but approximately 1 Tablespoon of the juices has evaporated.  Remove from the heat and set aside.
4) On a lightly foured work surface, roll the puff pastry into a rectangle 1/4 inch thick and approximately 12 by 18 inches.  Place it on a floured baking surface to within 1 inch of the edges.  The paste will be almost 1/2 inch thick.  fold the edges over the leek mixutre, crimping them to make a free-form tart.  Place in the oven and bake until the crust has puffed and the leeks are golden, 12 to 15 minutes.  Add the morels and bake another 5 minutes.  Serve hot, cut into rectangles or wedges.
It tasted so creamy and good
from the warm sour cream
and goat cheese underneath!

Afterwards, I wrote in Robin's cookbook on the leek tart recipe page, the date and whom we had served.  Over a lifetime, I find these little notes create such an evocative list of memories of good times and good companionship.

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