Away from the kitchen for more than a couple of weeks and these fingers start to itch, this brain begins ticking, whirring slowly into gear and then, oh dear, food itself becomes the very topic of dreams. Eating out every night in Spain, every day, too, had its charms (no washing up for starters) but the subconscious was not-so-subtly letting me know what it was craving. In lieu of actual cooking, dreaming about cooking took me by surprise.
Being surrounded by delicious salt cod and tuna dishes, inventive and awash with the most beautiful, grassy olive oil, anchovies both white and pink so succulent as to silence us on more than one occasion, snaffled up, alternating one pink, one white until the plate was empty was both wonderful and inspiring, yet each night, drifting off to sleep, vegetables, herbs and wholegrains took hold of my thoughts. Perhaps there’s something Freudian in that.
Notes from my journal this year are dotted with references searching for the perfect recipe for an all wholemeal (wholewheat) pastry. So often the dough is leaden, shrinks to nothing and tastes of cardboard. Holiday reading has happily fixed that. The idea of a tart, with a crumbly, buttery fibre-rich crust, filled with spring herbs, was sown.
Chervil is a pretty, wispy, girly sort of herb with a pale green, fern-like head of hair similar to, but finer still than, the feathery tops of baby carrots. It’s a spring tonic; a subtler version of parsley with the just the vaguest hint of anise. The classic use for it, then, is fines herbes a combination of equal quantities of finely chopped chervil, parsley, tarragon and chives. Sprinkled over a dish of perfectly cooked spring vegetables lightly drizzled with olive oil or topped, still-warm, with a spoonful of unsalted butter is reason enough to grow your own. I, however, am the chervil-killer, having tried to grow it unsuccessfully a record five pathetic times now. And it goes to seed as soon as you turn your back, before you can even utter the words, ‘I hope I don’t manage to kill this one before the holiday’s begun…’ Needless to say Prahran Market was able to oblige.
Holidays are marvelous, and there’s much more to tell, but it’s nice to be home.
Spring herb tart for 6-8
This is a Tarte aux fines herbes in essence, but as I can’t stand buying a bunch of herbs and using only a measly tablespoon or two (and watching the remainder wither away on the bench) it’s very herby and a little rougher around the edges than the classic-sounding name suggests. Spring herb tart it is then, and just the way home-cooked should be.
1 prepared tart shell (see below)
1 large bunch of spring onions
3 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon of olive oil
4 large sprigs of tarragon
1 handful of chervil leaves
1 handful of parsley leaves
1 handful of chives
4 eggs, free range (you know the drill)
250ml of double cream, preferably organic
1 large handful of grated cheese (Cheddar, Gruyere, Manchego, whatever)
Slice the spring onions thinly, greens and all, and crush the garlic. Heat the oil in a frying pan over low-medium and add the spring onions and garlic. Cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Strip the tarragon leaves, discard the stalks, and chop them finely. Chop the chervil and parsley finely, snip the chives into short lengths and add all of the herbs to the cooked spring onions and garlic, stirring well. Cool.
Beat the eggs lightly with the cream and plenty of pepper. Add three-quarters of the cheese and mix well.
Spread the spring onion-herb mixture evenly over the base of the cooked pastry shell. Gently pour in the egg mixture and top with the remaining cheese.
Bake for 20-30 minutes at 180 C (375 F) until golden on top. Rest for at least 5 minutes before slicing and serving. Good hot, cold or somewhere in between, with a salad.
Wholemeal (wholewheat) tart shell
From an idea in Colin Spencer’s Vegetable Pleasures. Don’t feel that you need to use this particular pastry – by all means use your own shortcrust – it’s just that I had a eureka moment and thought you might be interested. It will crack and misbehave and you’ll end up with a patch-worked tart shell, but it’s worth the effort. The secret is the lemon juice (which helps to develop the gluten) instead of water (which is why pastry shrinks). Bear with me.
150g (6oz) of unsalted butter
300g (a fraction less than 12oz) of wholemeal (wholewheat) flour
Pinch of sea salt
Measure your butter and then wrap in foil and freeze for 30 minutes or longer.
Sift the flour into a bowl and tip any bran left in the sieve into the bowl. Add the salt and mix. Using a box grater, coarsely grate the ice-cold butter into the pastry and, working quickly and lightly, crumble the mixture between your fingers, or use a pastry cutter if you happen to have one, until it resembles breadcrumbs. (This takes more effort than with white flour, but be patient).
Squeeze the lemon and add all of the juice to the bowl. Using your knuckles, pummel the mixture into a crumbly paste and form into two balls. Again, be patient – it will be crumbly, but this is desirable. Wrap in greaseproof paper and pop in the fridge for 30 minutes – 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 200 C (400 F).
Remove both balls of pastry from the fridge. Roll out, one at a time, as thinly as you can (about ½ cm is the thinnest I got to) and yes, it will shatter and break. No matter. Place as many whole pieces as possible on the base of a tart tin with a removable base. Fill the holes and cracks in between with enough pastry to completely cover the base and sides. Any leftover pastry should be kept – this is important.
Cover the base generously with a sheet of baking paper and fill with dried beans or ceramic baking beads, whatever you have. Bake for 10 minutes, then remove the beans and paper and return the shell to the oven for a further 10 minutes.
When the shell comes out, the base will reveal cracks and even holes. Fill these, as you would a cracked wall, while the case is still warm, with the leftover pastry bits and cool completely before filling and continuing with the recipe.