Easter has come and gone, and so has our scampagnata (holiday outing) in the country just outside of Martina Franca. For the past week, we’ve been taking care of our friends’ home and land in the rolling hills of the Valle d’Itria while they were away in England for a quick visit with family before the busy summer season here. Although we live just five miles away in the not-so-big city of Martina Franca, the countryside here feels worlds away. Now we’ve returned to our house in the centro storico with a new appreciation for the pleasures and the rigors of country life. Along with the exquisite serenity and endless night sky, we learned that a pastoral existence is anything but indolent.
Our friends live on five acres with their three young children, assorted livestock, dogs, cats, olive trees, orchards and a thriving vegetable garden. In the midst of all this natural beauty,they offer an exquisitely restored trullo for holiday rental complete with a pool, cabana and shaded verandas to while away the summer. Their hard work has created a delightful retreat for their guests, who leave epic poems in their guest book about their experience. I can’t think of a more beautiful setting for psychic recalibration.
As our friends ferried their luggage to the waiting car that would take them to the airport, we learned that their ewe, Bella, had just delivered her first baby lamb. To our relief, Bella’s initial indifference gave way to maternal bonding, so our job was to make sure that mother and baby thrived while papa looked on from a safe distance in another pasture. As long as everyone was supplied with hay, some occasional oats for energy and olive branch trimmings for gleaning, all was well. The chickens were easy: they always seemed happy to see us and put themselves to bed at night by returning to their hen house at dusk all on their own. The dogs served as sentries; nothing escaped their notice and they kept us informed of the slightest activity. The cats just wanted to bask in the sun.
We lost all track of time, so content were we to manage our country tasks and soak up the solitude. Meals were planned around produce from the garden, some wild asparagus and chicory we found growing next to the stone wall by the road and the freshest eggs imaginable, supplemented by cheese, bread and wine from a nearby farm. We celebrated Easter with roast lamb, trying hard not to think about the young life frolicking nearby in the grass. Days turned into a week, and then it was time to go home.
During our country idyll, all those lovely eggs became the inspiration for a series of savory tarts. We’ve pretty much exiled butter in favor of extra virgin olive oil these days, so I’ve turned to a whole-wheat tart crust that features Pascarosa olive oil. The pastry recipe is from Clotilde Dusoulier of Chocolate and Zucchini, a terrific food blog you should visit. It’s the simplest and most forgiving pastry you’ll ever make—a perfect foil for just about any vegetable filling suspended in the lightest of custards. Banish any negative thoughts about whole wheat pastry crust you may be harboring. This one is both substantial enough to support the robust vegetable filling you’ll add to it but light enough to crunch pleasurably in your mouth. I’ve given you a recipe for onion, asparagus and spinach tart, but you could substitute these vegetables for just about any others you might have on hand. We can vouch for the appropriateness of these tarts, served hot, tepid or cold at every meal. That’s how we ate them.
Torta Rustica—Savory Vegetable Tart with Whole Wheat Olive Oil Pastry
For the pastry (makes enough to line an 11 to 12 inch tart pan):
250 grams (8.8 ounces) light whole-wheat flour or a half and half mix of all-purpose and whole wheat flours
1 tsp. Kosher or sea salt
120 ml (1/2 cup) cold water
60 ml (1/4 cup) best quality extra virgin olive oil
For the filling:
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion or two leeks
1 small bunch very thin asparagus
4 cups fresh spinach or Swiss chard leaves
1/2 cup milk or light cream (substitute almond milk if you prefer)
1/3 to 1/2 grated Parmigiano or another similarly flavorful cheese
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly grated black pepper
First, make the pastry. If necessary, prepare the tart pan by lightly oiling it with extra virgin olive oil if it doesn’t have a non-stick coating.Combine the flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the oil and mix it in with a fork until it is thoroughly incorporated. Add the water, mix with the fork until it is absorbed, then knead lightly until the dough comes together into a ball. You can do this with just one hand in the bowl, but don’t overdo it.
Turn the dough out on a lightly floured work surface. Sprinkle a little flour on the ball of dough and on the rolling pin, and roll the dough out into a circle large enough to fit your tart pan. Turn the dough a quarter of a circle every time you roll the pin forward and back, adding a little more flour underneath and on the dough when it seems on the verge of becoming sticky. Again, don’t overdo it.
Transfer the dough carefully into the prepared pan and line it neatly. Trim the excess dough, crimp the edges if you like and place the pan in the refrigerator for half an hour or so to rest.
Then blind-bake the crust at 400 degrees while you prepare the filling. To blind bake, prick the bottom of the pastry with a fork in several places to keep the pastry from shrinking while baking. Place a sheet of aluminum foil over the pastry, covering the edges of the crust; you may need to lay two sheets of foil placed across one another to cover everything. Line the foil with a cup or so of dried beans to weigh the foil down. Bake in the preheated 400 degree oven for about 15 minutes, remove from the oven, remove the beans and foil (you can use the beans as you normally would for anything else) and let the tart crust cool.
Now focus on the filling. Chop the onions into small dice. If using leeks instead, cut the dark green part of the stalk off and make two vertical cuts in the remaining white stalk down to the hairy root end of the leek. Rinse the stalks thoroughly, separating the four quarters of the cut stalk to make sure any sand and dirt are washed away. Slice the leeks down to the root end.
Heat the olive oil over a medium flame, then add the onions or leeks and salt and pepper to taste. Sauté the onions or leeks until they are soft, translucent and every so slightly golden, being careful not to brown them. Meanwhile, break the asparagus spears off at the woody end by holding each end in each of your hands. As you bend the stalk, it will snap at the point where the stalk becomes woody. Slice the tender ends horizontally on the diagonal into half inch pieces.
Wash the spinach or Swiss chard leaves thoroughly by immersing them in a cold water bath. Remove the center stalks and julienne the leaves (stack them on top of one another and slice into thin strips).
Add the asparagus to the sauté pan with the onions or leeks, sauté for five minutes or so, then add the spinach. Sauté for another 5 minutes or so, adding a little water or white wine if the mixture seems especially dry. Taste for salt and pepper, adding as necessary. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, mix the eggs and milk together in a bowl. If you have any ricotta hanging around, you could add about half a cup of it to make a richer tart, but it’s not necessary.
When the sautéed vegetables have cooled a little, add them to the pre-baked tart crust and spread them around to cover the bottom of the crust. Don’t worry too much about this—haphazard is better than careful, thorough spreading. Pour the egg and milk mixture into the tart pan, then sprinkle the cheese over everything.
Bake the tart at 400 degrees for about 20-25 minutes at the most. Eat while hot, allow it cool to room temperature or save it for the morning. It’s all pretty wonderful.
* This is about 2 cups or so, but measuring flour by weight is the only way to ensure accuracy. Consider buying a kitchen scale. It’s an invaluable tool that you’ll use over and over again and the simplest models are not especially expensive.