Thursday, March 10, 2011
Tarte aux Oignons – Caramelized Onion Tart with Black Olives
Peg Bracken, who penned guides on cooking, housekeeping, and etiquette in the 60s and 70s, advised quite firmly against ironing of any kind. She felt it led to a surplus of introspection. In that same vein I would counsel entirely against slicing onions by hand at the end of winter. An old onion is what’s known as a “cryer”, and by the beginning of March, they’re all getting rather vicious.
It’s been 4 months after all, since the end of the onion field harvest. Now that’s not to say I’m suggesting you wait until they’re back in season in August to cook with onions. There are way too many important things to eat between now and then – this tart for example. But if you’re going to set out to make something that involves slicing four or five cold storage onions into half moons, particularly on a dreary day in March, then you might want to proceed with caution.
Let’s say, just for example, that you’re wrapping up the process of applying to New York City nursery schools. You’ve written your essays (I am not kidding) and procured references from your most plausible friends and fumbled through parent interviews that opened with a question about your parenting philosophy (What? My what?). And suppose that all your ducks finally seem to be neatly in a row, and that you’ve made it to the final step, which is your child’s “playdate” or “observation.”
Now let’s just say that your impeccably bathed and dressed 2 year old chooses this exceptionally delicate moment to completely and utterly lose her mind. She steals toys and hurls blocks and pronounces the word “no” in increasingly shrill tones. "Mom!" she calls over her shoulder at one point, brandishing a wooden spatula, "I hit that boy with this spoon!" And just when you think that all your darkest fears have been realized, and that it can’t possibly get any worse, your child marches up to the director of admissions, who is perched in a toddler-sized school chair, and with remarkable force and accuracy, gives her a kick in the shins.
“Hey lady!” she screams, “Don’t talk!”
Hours later your 2 year old has long forgotten her transgressions and the ensuing chaos and admonishments. You on the other hand are still having exactly the sort of day where, upon finding yourself faced with a bowl full of late season onions, you should reach for the food processor.
“Why are you crying Mommy?”
“Oh, I’m just happy honey,” you beam out over your chopping board of hand-slivered onions.
So, so happy.
Sure it’s probably just old onions. You don't cry about nursery schools. You know how to butcher half a cow. But life is full of blurred lines and gray areas too.
Do you know anything about applying to nursery schools in Manhattan? It’s another story for another blog, but suffice to say that when one of you turned to the other and said “Let’s have a baby,” applying to nursery schools in Manhattan was precisely the opposite of what you meant. And when they first handed you this baby, you did not, could not even conceive of the way in which she might hit her “terrible twos” with all the subtlety of a 30-pound wrecking ball. Or synchronize her “hitting phase” (read: “relentless, socially-isolating thirst for blood”) so flawlessly with nursery school interview month.
Fortunately friends come over. To cringe. To laugh. To compare tales of public humiliation. And friends have to be fed. You don’t have the wherewithal for actual cooking, of course, but this is scarcely a recipe. It’s like the less refined, rustic cousin of the classic Alsatian onion tart that uses pâte brisée and a custard filling. Tarte aux oignons is scrappy and crave-able and fragrant, rather like your two year old.
There’s hardly a bit of work involved, especially if you take my advice and let the thinnest slicing blade on your food processor do the labor. In fact it’s your job to leave the onions alone as they cook. That’s the only way they’ll caramelize and build up all the jammy savor that makes this tart so perfect for late winter. I’ve added some black oil cured olives, much like a Provençal pissaladière, though I’ve skipped the anchovies. I find the olives add an earthy salinity that enhances the sweet, floral flavor of caramelized onions deglazed in wine. The white wine is the trick here – it adds an extra depth that sets this apart from other onion tarts.
This is just as good cold as it is warm, and cut into small wedges it makes a wonderful accompaniment to apéritifs. If you want your tarte aux oignons to be the main event though, all you really need with it is a little green salad vinaigrette (I like mâche this time of year) and a glass of whatever you have open. Which frankly ought to be plenty if you’re even contemplating applying to nursery schools. If you require more sustenance, tapenade makes an ideal accompaniment, as do some thinly sliced rounds of sauçisson sec.
Serves 4 – 6
Extra virgin olive oil
4 – 5 large yellow onions, peeled and sliced into thin half moons
1 clove of garlic, peeled and minced,
6 stems thyme
large pinch minced rosemary
1 glass dry white wine
flour for dusting
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
splash of milk
small handful oil-cured black olives
Preheat the oven to 425 F (220 C, gas mark 7).
Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Give it a generous glug of olive oil and then add your onions. Do not stir. Do not add any salt. You want these onions to caramelize. Check them often so they don’t burn, and when you see some color beginning to form, give them a good stir and allow to sit still until color forms again. Refresh the oil if the pan gets dry. Make sure the fond in the bottom of the pan doesn’t burn and continue until the onions are golden brown (see photo below).
Add the garlic, the leaves from 4 stems of thyme, the minced rosemary, and stir again. Allow to cook until quite dark and then remove from the heat. Add the glass of wine and season generously with salt and pepper. Return to medium-high heat and allow to bubble, scraping the bottom of the pan to lift up the fond, until the wine has evaporated.
Meanwhile flour a work surface and roll out your puff pastry. Trim to a rectangle of about 10 x 16 inches (about 25 x 40 cm). Line a baking sheet with parchment and then arrange your pastry sheet over the paper. With the tip of a sharp knife, lightly score an inch-wide border around the outer edge of your pastry – this helps the crust to rise. Prick the inner rectangle all over with a fork.
When the wine has evaporated and the onions are dark brown, check the seasoning with more salt and pepper if necessary, and arrange them on the center of the pastry (see photo below), and then sprinkle over the olives.
Whisk together the egg and the milk and brush over the outer border of the pastry. Place the tart in the center of the oven and immediately reduce the heat to 375 F (190 C, gas mark 5). Bake until the crust is puffed and golden (30 – 45 minutes). If your crust gets too dark before 30 minutes has passed, you may tent the tart loosely with tinfoil while it finishes baking. Remove the tart from the oven and allow to sit uncovered for 10 minutes before serving. Just before serving sprinkle over the leaves of one or two more stems of thyme.