Several people have asked me for this recipe, which I regularly do for vegetarian guests, and was my a contribution to a birthday party a week or so ago. I used to do classy bed and breakfast in the Loire Valley, providing the evening meal for tired and hungry travellers. It was then that I built up a store of really good vegetarian recipes that made those who did not want to eat meat still feel part of the celebration. That is, not as is typical in France, or has been until recently, just taking the meat off the plate and leaving three green beans and some salad!
The recipe is not complicated, in the sense of difficult, but does have a number of steps.
The grammar of it:
pignon (masculine noun), un pignon, le pignon, des pignons = a pine nut
Have you ever tried cracking the very tough shells that fall with pine cones from parasol pines and extracting the little nuts? My daughter, whose patience is unlimited, used to spend hours as a child cracking them with a stone on the steps under our parasol pine. One year, during a particularly rainy September, a few germinated and I now have the children of that parasol pine, to which I was so attached, growing in pots on my terrace here in Brittany. I think that enormous tree, which my Father planted from seed, was one of the hardest things to leave behind when I moved here.
One can understand, with all the work involved, why pine nuts are so expensive. But they add a nutty crunch to salads and roasted vegetables that is hard to beat.
A pine cone is une pomme de pin, literally a “pine apple”. We called them tisty tosties when we were children, can’t think why, though it might be the noise they make when they hit the ground?
Un pignon is also the gable end of a house.
So my recipe for today is my (famous!) tatin d’aubergine. I have already explained tatin in an earlier post and the fact that any upside down tart now qualifies as a tatin.
Ingredients for a 27cm-29cm tart (enough for 4 people as a main course, 6 for a starter)
- A handful of pine nuts – pignons
- 2 or 3 aubergines, fat ones that are not too long
- A little olive oil
- A few handfuls of sea salt
- 3 heaped tbs sugar
- A jar of sundried tomatoes (taste them to make sure they are not too salty)
- A tsp or two of dried Italian herbs
- A roll of good quality puff pastry, circular if possible (32cm diameter)
- Wash the aubergines and trim the ends. Cut into half centimetre slices, discarding the outer slices which are just skin. Lay them out on a clean draining board or a large chopping board, a layer at a time, covering each layer with a sprinkling of sea salt before adding another layer on top. Continue in this fashion until all the aubergine has been sliced, stacked and salted. Leave for half an hour. This procedure removes the bitterness and a lot of the water so that, later in the cooking process, the moisture is not released and makes everything soggy. This is called “faire dégorger” in French, to draw out the liquid.
- Rinse the slices under lots of running cold water to remove not only the salt, but the saltiness. Squeeze each slice as if you were wringing out a dishcloth, rinse again, squeeze again and set aside.
- Grease a 27-29cm tart dish with olive oil.
- Make a small quantity of caramel in a saucepan with three heaped tbs sugar and a dash (just a dash) of water. Cook until it starts to colour (shake do NOT stir, unlike 007’s martinis…), it needs to be caramelly but not burnt. The line is fine, practice makes perfect. Pour quickly into the tart dish and using both hands, tip the dish to spread the caramel as far as possible over the bottom. It will set very rapidly, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t spread too far.
- In a heavy bottomed frying pan, roast the pine nuts dry (no oil) until they start to colour. Don’t take your eyes off them, they burn really quickly and taste awful. And as soon as they are done, get them out of the pan, which will be very hot and will continue cooking them.
- Spread the pignons evenly over the bottom of the tart dish on top of the caramel.
- Pre-heat the oven to 180°C (see conversion table page).
- Place a large dried tomato upside down in the middle of the tart dish and eight more around the edge. This is the side that is going to show when you turn the tart out, so make it pretty.
- Pour a tbs olive oil into the same pan as you used for the pignons, heat well and fry the aubergine a few slices at a time until it colours well (burns slightly). (This can be done without oil if you wish.) This is the longest part of the recipe. Turn the slices, and when they are done, place them in the tart dish with the wider part of the slice towards the outside, and the thinner end overlapping in the centre (you can even trim off the middle bits if they overlap too much). Cover the whole dish, using any little irregular bits of aubergine to fill up the holes.
- Place more pieces of dried tomato half way down the aubergine slices (that is, between the edge tomatoes underneath and the centre one underneath, so that each mouthful will have a taste of dried tomato). Sprinkle with italian herbs and finish with another layer of aubergine slices. This uses quite a lot of aubergine, so I always prepare three aubergines in slices, and if there are any left over, I use them the following day in a moussaka or something like that.
- DO NOT add salt or pepper.
- Cover the dish with the puff pastry, tucking the edges in roughly. They mustn’t hang over the edge of the dish.
- Bake in the oven for about half an hour, until the puff pastry is risen and golden brown. Sometimes a bit less, it depends on your oven. Keep watching it for the “just right” moment.
- Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the dish. The tart should be served warm, not hot, and can even be served cold. It can be reheated if you have prepared it slightly in advance. BUT it should NOT be turned out until just before eating, or the pastry will soak up all the juice and go soggy. This is really important.
- When you do decide to turn it out, run a knife around the inner edge of the tart dish to loosen the pastry, place a larger dish upturned over the pastry, protect your wrists in case any hot juice leaks out, give the dish a quick shake or two to loosen everything and flip it over quickly. Give another couple of shakes and presto! Your tart should be pastry side down and very decorative dried tomato and pignon side up! (If any bits stick just rearrange the presentation when no one is looking.)
- Serve with a green salad.
Did you manage all that? Not so difficult really, and the result is delicious and quite impressive. And unusual. Nice to find something unusual.