Standing in my kitchen, I cursed a man I have never met. It was pure provocation on his part, I felt, and so I cursed him. Damn you, Monsieur Gomez!
Let me start at the beginning. In an effort to support small farmers, to buy locally and organically and to save myself the mind-numbing task of standing in line at the check-out, I signed up for a delivery service that brings a basket (well, really a big cardboard box, but who's splitting hairs?) of fresh-off-the-farm goodness right to my door. Every week, my box arrives right on time, brimming with lots of lovely things, all labeled with not only their regions of origin, but the name of the farm from whence they came, and the name of the farmers who painstakingly grew or reared them. Lamb from a Monsieur Sarrazin in the Aquitaine, duck from the Marauli farm in Burgundy, mackerel from Monsieur Dupuy in Poitou-Charentes. And Swiss chard from Monsieur Gomez in Provence.
I don't get to choose what's in my basket; its contents depend on the season and what the partner farms have grown, so I have to make do with what I get. Most of the time I relish the challenge of figuring out what do with, say, two dozen quail eggs or a pound of watercress, but sometimes, like this week, I get a basket full of bafflement.
You see, this is the third time in a row that Monsieur Gomez has seen fit to send a massive bunch of Swiss chard, along with his regards. The first week I was pleased; I'd never bought, prepared or even eaten Swiss chard before. I stripped the stalks and sautéed their brilliant green leaves in olive oil with a pinch of sea salt and some freshly ground black pepper, along with a squeeze of lemon, the way I might a bunch of spinach, and served them with a salmon steak. I braised the cut up stalks with a minced shallot and a few chopped up slices of bacon in some chicken stock and added a dollop of crème fraîche before serving them beside a roast chicken. Great.
The next week I was a little bemused to see the leafy greens poking out of the box again, but game to find something else to do with them. They are supposed to be good for you, after all. This time I killed two birds with one stone and prepared the leaves and the ribs together. I steamed the chopped ribs with some diced eggplant, seasoned them and mixed them in my food processor with some fresh breadcrumbs, and stuffed the lot into the blanched leaves, making little packets. I fit these snuggly into a baking dish, smothered them with some tomato coulis, and popped them in a medium-hot oven for about fifteen minutes. Lovely.
This week when those stalks showed up again, however, I shook a clenched fist at Monsieur Gomez. I'm all for eating my greens, but come on! My husband suggested doing the most classic of French recipes for Swiss chard, gratin de blettes, and though I had already made scalloped potatoes and gratinéed squash that week I caved. It was delicious and comforting in a cheesy, hot-out-of-the-oven sort of way.
The next day I still had those leaves to contend with. What to do with them? I'd already sautéed them, steamed them and stuffed them the weeks before; I was running out of inspiration. I knew that Swiss chard, despite its name, actually hails from the Mediterranean and with this in mind I grabbed a little cookbook off my shelf, given to me by my mother-in-law and full of quaint, hand-drawn illustrations of dishes and scenes from Provence. Bingo! Sure enough, there was a recipe using the rippled chard leaves. Glancing at it quickly it seemed to be for a chard leaf tart, and I absently plotted a diner of some quiche-like, savory dish with maybe a green salad on the side, followed by a plate of cheese. Perfect. But hang on, what was the recipe doing under the Desserts heading?
Turns out Tourte de Blettes, or Tourta de Blea as it's called in the Niçois dialect, is indeed a dessert. Greens after dinner? "Well," I reasoned, "carrot cake's always a hit and I can't get enough of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving; maybe winter greens with my coffee could go down well after all." I was right, or more precisely Dominique Compans, author of La Cuisine Provençale et Niçoise, was right; Swiss chard tart goes down a treat. The nutty taste of the chard was kicked up by pine nuts and the whole thing was full of the headiness only raisins soaked in alcohol can bring. I added some apples that were taking up too much room in the fruit bowl on the sideboard to the dried figs, and these, together with the surprise ingredient, Parmesan, made this tart one fine finish to our meal.
I silently apologized to Monsieur Gomez as I cut myself another slice of humble chard pie.
Tourta de Blea
Adapted from Dominique Compan’s La Cuisine Provençale et Niçoise
For the pastry
- 5 cups all purpose flour
- 3/4 cup butter, melted
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 2 eggs, beaten
- a pinch of salt
For the filling
- the leaves of one bunch of Swiss chard, cleaned and spun dry in a salad spinner
- 6 Russet apples, peeled, quartered and thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup of Sultana raisins
- 1/2 cup dried figs, chopped roughly
- brandy, rum, vodka, or other eau-de-vie
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 3/4 cup lightly packed brown sugar
- 3/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
- 3 tablespoons grated parmesan
- the juice of a lemon
- 1 teaspoon of olive oil
- icing sugar for dusting
First, make your pastry dough. Form a pyramid of flour on your work surface and dig a hole in its center. Pour in the beaten egg, the melted butter, the sugar and the salt. Work all this together with your hands until you get a nice, smooth dough, adding a little water if you need it. Don't over-work it or the dough will lose its elasticity. Let it rest for an hour or so.
Meanwhile, let the raisins and chopped figs sit in a shallow bowl just covered with your alcohol of choice, whatever you've got on hand. I used brandy, but rum or vodka would work just as nicely. Leave them to soak for an hour.
Preheat your oven to 400°F (200°C). For the filling, take your washed and dried chard leaves, remove any hard veins, and roll them up into a cigar, slicing them into fine shreds. In a large bowl, mix the leaves, the drained raisins and chopped figs, the brown sugar, the lemon juice, the cheese, the pine nuts, the oil and the eggs.
When your dough is ready, divide the ball into two chunks; roll out each into a 15-inch circle. Line a pie dish with one circle and spear in with the prongs of a fork here and there.
Spread the filling in the pie shell and cover with the apple slices. Top with the second pastry circle and seal your pie by pinching the edges. Place in the middle of your oven and bake for 20 minutes, until the pie crust turns golden. Pull it out and check it the way you would a cake; plunge the tip of a knife into the center of the tart; if it comes out clean, it's ready. If not, turn the oven down to 350°F (180°C) and continue baking another five minutes or so.
Take the tourte out of the oven, let cool slightly but not completely, and dust with icing sugar. Serve warm.
© 2011 Lise Charlebois-Ludot