Sunday, February 20, 2011

Patricia Wells' Leek Tart

It’s slim pickings at the farmers market this time of year so my eyes lit up when I saw a stack of leeks at the Paffenroth Gardens stand the other day.  
I’m not going to lie; upon closer inspection, the outer layer of the leeks looked a little withered and worse for wear. I bought them anyway because I’d already started dreaming of one of my favorite savory tarts made of leeks, crème fraiche, Gruyere, and prosciutto.

I’ve been making this recipe for years. I love to have it for dinner with a beautiful green salad; it makes me feel so civilized and, well, so French. Which it should because a leek tart is a classic French dish.

The recipe comes from,
Bistro Cooking, one of the first cookbooks in my collection. The American author, Patricia Wells, has lived in Paris since 1980 and authored a dozen books, many related to French cooking and cuisine. She also runs a cooking school called At Home with Patricia Wells in both Paris and Provence. Wells wrote a food column for the International Tribune for years and is a true expert on French cooking. Despite her accomplishments (and I haven’t listed them all here) her writing and cooking style remains down to earth and authentic. In my mind Patricia Wells’ recipes are the French equivalent to Ina Garten’s i.e. easy and elegant.

Flamiche aux Poireaux (Leek Tart)
Adapted from Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells

Paffenroth Gardens, where I found my leeks, is a Union Square stalwart, showing up every Saturday even in the depths of winter. Alex Paffenroth is something of a root vegetable specialist, growing a large and diverse variety all year round.

Leeks are a member of the alluim family, which also includes onions, shallots, scallions and garlic. The flavor of a leek is more sweet and mellow than that of an onion. The edible portion of a leek is the white and light green stalk; the dark green top is fibrous and not pleasant to eat.

Because the white stalk grows under the soil (that’s why it’s white and not green), dirt is usually found between its many layered sections. I remember my cooking school teacher making a big deal about the need to clean leeks carefully before cooking.  If a recipe calls for chopped leeks, I find it easiest to clean them by cutting the leeks first than washing them in a colander or salad spinner.

The crust is a classic French pastry dough called pate brisee. It’s light, flaky, and rich and may be used for both sweet and savory dishes (if you’re making a sweet tart, add a little sugar to the dry ingredients). The butter to flour ratio is high which means you need to keep all the ingredients cold and work fast, with as little contact with your warm hands as possible.

The dough is a breeze to make but I guess I wasn’t working very quickly because it didn’t turn out as pretty as it usually does. I’m showing the pictures anyway because I know working with dough can be intimidating for some. I’m here to say it’s not a big deal, especially in this case. The crust gets filled with the leek mixture and no one will ever see the bumps and patches underneath. Go for it!

Pate Brisee
1 - 1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons ice water

Place 1 cup of flour, butter, and salt in a food processor. Process just until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs, about 10 seconds. Add the ice water and pulse just until the pastry begins to hold together, about 6 – 8 times. Do not let it form a ball. (As is often the case, I used a pastry blender instead of my food processor; either method is fine). Transfer the pastry to waxed paper; flatten the dough into a disk. If the dough seems too sticky, sprinkle it with additional flour, incorporating 1 tablespoon at a time. Wrap the pastry in waxed paper. Refrigerate for a least 1 hour.

Tart Filling
12 small leeks (about 3 pounds)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs
1/4 cup creme fraiche
4 slices (about 3 ounces) ham, such as thinly sliced prosciutto, coarsely chopped
1 cup (about 3 ounces) freshly grated Gruyere cheese

Prepare the pastry shell:
Roll out the dough to line a 10 1/2 inch tart pan. Carefully transfer the dough to the pan. Chill for 30 minutes or until firm.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Prepare the filling:
Trim the leeks at the root. Cut off and discard the dark green portions.

Split the leeks lengthwise then coarsely chop. Wash chopped leeks in a salad spinner or colander with cold water until no grit remains.

Melt the butter in a medium size saucepan over low heat. Add the leeks, salt and pepper to taste and cook, covered, until the leeks are very soft but not browned, about 20 minutes.  If the leeks have given up an excessive amount of liquid, drain them in a colander.

Combine the eggs and creme fraiche in a medium size bowl and mix until thoroughly blended. Add the leeks and mix again.

Reserve 1/4 cup each of the ham and the cheese to sprinkle on top of the tart. Mix the rest into the leek mixture.

Pour the leek mixture into the prepared pastry shell. Sprinkle with the reserved ham, and then the cheese. Season generously with pepper.

Bake until nicely browned, about 45 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 6 - 8

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