Fennel cream cheese and tomato tart

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Like the French, I am not ashamed to buy and use ready-made puff pastry. The quality is generally good and it can save precious time when tiredness stands between you and a freshly baked tart.  I’m a big fan of open tarts because they can exert powers of resurrection over the tired stuff at the bottom of the fridge if you need to use it up. As always though, this will taste and look even better if your tomatoes are taut, herbs fresh and the cheese is the best you can afford. The fennel, herbs and cheese are whipped into a soft creamy bed for the tomatoes and smoothed over the uncooked pastry. If you don’t have access to fennel leaves (fronds) from a garden then many of the bagged salads in supermarkets contain it. Or look for an entire fennel root with a decent amount of fronds attached. The rest of the bulb can be sliced and added to salads, cooked down into summery tomato-based pasta sauces or roasted in its entirety so it won’t go to waste.

This tart takes minutes to prepare and they are good minutes too: by the time you slide the tart into the oven, the air will be scented with the aniseed notes of the fennel and the sharp grass and fruit of tomatoes at the height of their season.

Ingredients

320g ready-made puff pastry

2 very large tomatoes (around 750g)

150g Le Roule soft herbed cheese (or similar brand: Rosary garlic and herb goats cheese is good, too)

2 cloves garlic

sea salt and pepper

sprigs of thyme, lemon thyme, marjoram (chopped, about 3 level tsp), keep a few more sprigs whole for garnishing

chopped fennel fronds (about 2 tsp) or fennel seed (1 tsp)

2 spring onions, cut into thin slices along their length

Shaved parmiggiano to finish (a handful)

olive oil

Method

Heat oven to 190c / 375f and grease a flat baking tray with oil. Put tray in oven to get good and hot. This gives a good baked finish to the pastry base- no soggy bottoms.

Unwrap the pastry and place it on the baking tray then, using a sharp knife, score a line on the pastry, about ½ in (1 cm) in from the edge, all the way around without cutting all the way through. This will ensure that when the pastry bakes, a natural lip will form around the topping.

Crush the garlic with a flat blade and finely chop it. Then chop the fennel and herbs finely too, keeping a few stems of thyme and marjoram intact for the garnish.

Place the soft cheese into a  bowl, add the crushed garlic, fennel (fronds or seeds), chopped herbs and a goodly amount of salt and fresh black pepper to taste. Whip it together with a fork until it is creamy and well combined then using a small palette or other round-bladed knife, spread the cheese mixture evenly all over the surface of the pastry, right up to the line you scored earlier.

Now, thinly slice the tomatoes and arrange them on top of the cheese in whatever pattern pleases you. Sometimes I overlap, sometimes (as in the photo above) I just dot them about.  Arrange the spring onions over them. Brush the edges of the pastry with olive oil, and drizzle some of the oil over the tomatoes and onions then season them  with a little more salt. Scatter the herb sprigs on top.

Bake in the pre-heated oven on the middle shelf for 40-50 minutes or until the pastry is golden-brown and the tomatoes are soft, slightly charred at the edges and perfectly roasted. Keep an eye on it during the last ten minutes because seconds can lie between a perfect charred edge and black smoking ruin. I always throw on some shaved parmesan to serve, too.

 

Beanz don’t have to mean Heinz

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As delicious as they are (and a staple in our house), there is so much more to these legumes than the most well-known form in the UK suggests- canned in a tomato based sauce. Used by the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Native Americans and hardy in storage, they are the perfect and versatile carriers for all kinds of flavours- from the more subtle to punchier, earthier ingredients.

The subtle rosiness of the cannelini bean, much beloved by the Etruscans who baked them in sealed bottles flavoured with rosemary forms the backbone of this simple and inexpensive gratin, augmented by the borlotti – another ‘Italian Stallion’, much grown in the Veneto region and prized for its beautiful dappled-pink jacket. I have used canned beans but there is no reason why you cannot use dried although this removes the store cupboard spontaneity of this meal as they will need to be soaked for several hours.

Another plus point for gratins in general is their ability to be either the star of the show or an accompaniment to something else. Served as it is with some bread, this gratin is absolutely fine and leaves nobody feeling cheated. Or you can add sausage: the rough-hewn chunkiness of the Toulouse;  a few slices of the terracotta-juiced chorizo or a classic Lincolnshire will all turn your gratin into a real down home feast. It even works with Quorn vegetarian sausages because the gratin has enough residual sauce to counteract the lack of flavour-packed fat in these. Leave the crumb topping as it is or add in some grated cheese-whatever you have lying around in your larder. Like most comfort foods, it originates from a place of using up what you have.

Smokey Bean Gratin with Crumbs.

One can of Borlotti Beans and one can of Canellini beans, drained and rinsed of the salted water / One red bell pepper / one large white onion fine sliced / two garlic cloves fine sliced or a good squirt of garlic paste / 1/2 can of plum tomatoes / one teaspoon of either Tomato Paste or La Bomba tomato paste / one teaspoon of Sweet Spanish smoked Paprika / salt and pepper to season / one teaspoon of Thyme / Olive Oil for frying / One slice of dry bread/ small end piece of Chile (optional)

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Heat the oven to 180C . Add olive oil to a frying pan and slowly cook down the onion, red pepper, tomato chunks, thyme, chile (if using) and garlic with the tomato paste and salt to season until softened and glistening. You will need to cook this down for at least fifteen minutes to allow the tomato paste to mellow in its flavour. If it looks like it is drying out, add a little more canned tomato.

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Whilst this is cooking down, grate the bread into crumbs, stir in some smoked paprika, a little more Thyme and some salt, drizzle with Olive Oil and spread onto a baking sheet. Place the breadcrumbs into the oven for a couple of minutes to fully dry out but don’t let them colour. Taste the onion and tomato mix and adjust the seasoning if you feel this is necessary.

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Add the beans to the onion and tomato mixture, mix and pour into a baking dish. Top with the breadcrumbs, drizzle over a little olive oil and place in the oven. The gratin only needs ten minutes maximum and keep an eye on it. Depending upon your oven, the crumb topping may brown faster or slower. When it is ready, remove and eat immediately. We ate ours with sausages and some left over roast chicken.