Sunday, January 13, 2008

Review Week: Simply the Best Tart Ever!

Note: This post is going to be the first post in a week long series of reviews of cookbooks, products and a restaurant or two.

A few weeks ago, I was asked if I wanted to receive a copy of Alice Waters new cookbook The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution to review. As I had been waiting for this cookbook to come out for a while, I was happy to say, "Yes, of course!"

I have to admit to not knowing who Alice Waters was until I was on a business trip in San Francisco a few years ago. My client, knowing I was a budding foodie, took me to Chez Panisse for dinner and it was one of the most memorable meals of my life. I will never forget the braised lamb shanks I had that night; especially as they were the dish that started my love affair with lamb.

"The Art of Simple Food" is more than just a compilation of Ms. Waters recipes. It is a great starting point for anyone who is just beginning to cook using fresh and local ingredients or for that matter a great first cookbook for anyone new to the kitchen. But, the book is also a great resource for someone like me who has years of kitchen experience and sometimes just needs to be reminded of the basics or that one little tip to take a recipe of their own to that next level. There is something here for every level of cook. The book is organized in two sections, "Part I: Starting from scratch; lessons and foundation recipes" and "Part II: At the table; recipes for cooking every day".

Part I takes the reader through all the basic techniques and recipes that are considered the foundation for any great dish. Each chapter in Part I starts with an explanation of the concept and then presents a recipe that showcases the concept in its purest form along with simple variations to expand on the basic. For example, the chapter on pasta and polenta starts out with a description of fresh pasta and how to prepare and cook it. This is followed with a straight forward recipe for making your own fresh pasta without needing to use a pasta machine. The recipe also provides tips for those who have a machine but makes it clear that you don't need a machine to succeed. I love that none of the recipes for these basics call for ingredients or gadgets not easily found in the kitchen of a home cook who can make soup, broil a porkchop or bake cookies.

Another nice touch is throughout Part I there are margin notes with little tips about the chapter concept, ingredient use, or how to make the most out of the recipe. The only thing about Part I of "The Art of Simple Food" that I found a bit unfortunate is one I've mentioned before about comprehensive cookbooks, there is a lack of step by step illustrations for some of the more difficult techniques described. But, that one little thing shouldn't stop anyone new to cooking from buying and making this book a centerpiece of their cookbook collection. The recipes and descriptions in this section of "The Art of Simple Food" are that good and anyone who cooks should have these under their belt.

Part II provides a playground for the recipes and techniques from Part I. The recipes are well laid out with ingredients in bold letters. I really like this in a cookbook as it makes the ingredients stand out from the rest of the text making easier to ensure I don't miss one. I also like that each basic recipe used has the page number where that recipe is found reprinted. I always hate it when a recipe refers to another recipe in the cookbook and then doesn't tell you where to find that recipe, making you have to go to the index.

I tried seven different recipes from this section and didn't find any that couldn't be completed within a few hours and some within one hour; making most of the recipes perfect to use even on a busy work night. For example, one busy night I made the Baked Wild Salmon with Herb Butter (pg 330) and paired it with the Braised Belgian Endive (pg 311) but made the variation of using cream as the braising liquid. It was a delightfully light and tasty meal on a chilly mid-winter night. Best of all, even after having a training session at my gym that lasted until 8pm, I had dinner on the table by 8:30pm and dishes done and cleared by 9:30pm, all without any pre-gym prep work.

Another night, after having to work until 7pm, I came home and decided to clean out the fridge of a few odds and ends before leaving for the my Christmas trip home at the beginning of the next week. Rummaging around the various drawers and shelves of my fridge, I found half a Spanish Onion, 2 cups of diced ham, one scrambled egg from an egg wash I had used on some scones I took to work the day before, and about 3/4 cup of shredded swiss cheese. Flipping open "The Art of Simple Food", I found a recipe for a savory Onion Tart. Reading through the recipe, I decided it could be adapted to meet my need to clean out my fridge and to satisfy my hunger for a light but tasty meal.

Starting with the most simple of recipes for a tart or pie dough, I had the dough made and in the fridge in less than ten minutes. While the dough rested in the fridge, I sauteed the onions, deciding to take advantage of the time needed for the dough to rest, to allow them to almost caramelize. Then while I let the onions drain and cool, I rolled out the dough per the instructions, spread the onions across the dough and sprinkled some sage and nutmeg on them. Then I added the ham and swiss cheese, brushed the crust with the remaining egg wash and baked the tart. What came out of the oven was simply put, the best tart I've ever had in my life. Period.

The crust was incredibly thin, flaky and buttery. It shattered when I bit into a piece of tart. The sweet flavor of the onions with the combination of sage and nutmeg was incredible and was nicely complimented by the saltiness of the ham and tang of the swiss cheese. Best of all, I had enough left over to take to work for breakfast the next morning and have a late evening snack the following night after a long day of business travel.

If you know me, you know that I have quite a large cookbook collection. I keep my cookbooks in a large five shelf library style bookcase in my kitchen with my most often used cookbooks on the center shelf within easy reach. All these cookbooks are dog eared and ingredient spattered from years of use. Last night while I was picking up and sorting through the stacks of cookbooks I was working with over the past month, I made room on that center shelf for Alice Waters "The Art of Simple Food".

I'm sure in the weeks and years to come it will get a dusting of flour and a stain or two...

Tart and Pie Dough
From Alice Waters "The Art of Simple Food"

Makes two (2) 10 ounce balls of dough, enough for two 11" tarts or one double crust 9" tart

Have measured: 1/2 cup ice-cold water

Mix together:

2 cups AP unbleached flour
1/2 tsp salt (omit if using salted butter)

Add: 12 Tbsp (1 1/2 sticks) cold butter, cut into small (1/4 inch) cubes

Cut or work the butter into the flour with a pastry blender or your fingertips, leaving some of the butter in fairly large, irregular pieces. This will take 1 or 2 minutes. (Or mix for no more than a minute, at medium low speed, in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachement) Pour in three quarters of th water, stirring all the while with a fork until the dough begins to form clumps. (In the mixer, turn the speed to low and pour the water down the sides of the bowl, mixing for 30 seconds or less) Keep adding water if needed. Divide the dough in two, bring each part together into a ball, and wrap each ball in plastic. Compress each ball, and then flatten them into disks. Let rest, refrigerated for 1 hour or longer.