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A la tart.

Byline: ELAINE BEEBE LAPRIORE The Register-Guard

IT WAS COLD enough to turn on the oven, but the calendar announced spring. What to cook?

Something with both substance and simplicity; something hearty enough for the chilly day, yet light enough to herald the new season.

Somehow, this led to thoughts of pissaladieres, the French onion tarts studded with black nicoise olives and anchovies that are de rigueur in the south of France. The name is taken from the traditional coating of the condiment pissalat, an olive-oil-based anchovy puree flavored with cloves, thyme, bay leaf and pepper.

Robust and flavorful, centered on onion slices lightly scented with herbs, the pissaladiere is not a dainty tart but sturdy; ideally, something you could eat walking down the street. (Note to anchovy-phobes: The salty little fish plays a lead role in this dish, unlike its background presence in Caesar salad dressing.)

The pissaladiere - pronounced pee-sah-lah-dyair - turns up on the menu at Marche, so we called owner Stephanie Pearl Kimmel. "We make it fairly often, especially after the Walla Walla Sweets come on in summer, because they caramelize so beautifully," she said. "It's kind of an iconic food in Provence. It's a snack, also a first course."

Marche's version uses a pizza dough base, Kimmel said, but other recipes call for pate brisee, the butter-based pastry crust of a pie or quiche, or a layered puff pastry in layers.

The onion tart - tarte a l'oignon - appears all over France in distinct, regional forms. In Breton, it's a creamy affair. In Alsace, Kimmel said, they stir creme fraiche into the onion mixture, changing the complexion of the dish.

"I like the Provence one the best," Kimmel admits. "Onions are so delicious."

I agreed; so I banished thoughts of creme fraiche and sought out recipes for a tart that celebrated onions in their sweetest glory. It sounded simple enough, which means, of course, it wasn't.

Recipes that called themselves pissaladiere included a variety of bread and pastry foundations, as Kimmel had explained. The triumvirate of toppings -onion, olive, anchovy - was joined by tomatoes, garlic, bacon, Gruyere, Parmesan.

Most recommended sweet onions, and the slicing direction was uniform: in half, then into thin slices from root to tip. The quantities ranged from a vague "five onions" to more specific weights; 2 pounds was by far the most common.

All pissaladiere recipes required cooking the onions in advance, but the instructions diverged from there. Some recipes suggested browning the onions, others insisted the onions remain uncolored by cooking.

Onions were sauteed in butter, olive oil and in both; in pans covered and pans uncovered. They were cooked for 20 minutes, until softened. They were cooked for an hour, into a semi-puree. Cook for two hours, one recipe suggested.

The first recipe I tried, from Gourmet magazine, used puff pastry for the crust. Warm, the pissaladiere was toothsome but a bit crumbly for finger food.

Precooked for 30 minutes, the onions were tender and sweet but not soft and not at all caramelized. In reading the recipe, a mere half-teaspoon of dried herbs seemed inadequate to flavor 2 pounds of onions, but in the finished tart, it was the right amount.

The Parmesan in the recipe didn't add much to the tart. The anchovies were aggressive, even in tiny pieces. And it wasn't pleasant at room temperature; reheating was in order for the second helping.

For the pate brisee version of the pissaladiere, I decided to look to a pedigreed source, preferably French. Richard Olney's cookbook "Lulu's Provencal Table" seemed just the place.

The book collects the recipes of Lucien Peyraud, or Lulu, the mistress of Domaine Tempier vineyard in Provence. The book's foreword drips with the praise of Alice Waters, owner-chef of the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse and an acknowledged vegetable guru.

Alas, with a butter-rich crust and two tablespoons of olive oil drizzled over the top, Lulu's pissaladiere verged on greasy when it was fresh from the oven. It had a heaviness that was unappealing for a main course. It would be better served in tiny slices as a cocktail party hors d'oeuvre. (Not for a morning function, though - anchovies in the a.m. are a little rough.)

However, the hour-plus advance cooking of the onions gave the filling a creamy consistency that turned golden when baked and that paired well with the crust. To make this again, I'd first search out a lighter pastry crust recipe and would skip the final drizzle of oil.

Finally, success - a breadlike pizza dough, courtesy of French chef Jacques Pepin, made the best pissaladiere. It was sturdy enough to transport a thick layer of onions - from pan to plate to mouth, yes, and even down the street. But the yeast dough, with its natural airiness and minimal fat, lightened up the picture.

Pepin flavors his onions with cloves - a cue taken from the traditional pissalat - but I added a pinch of thyme.

Served with baby greens tossed with balsamic vinaigrette, the third pissaladiere made a wonderful Sunday supper. Rain spat on the window outside, but our kitchen was warmed by a Provencal glow.

Pissaladiere

"Although this dish can be made with regular pate brisee," writes Jacques Pepin in "A French Chef Cooks at Home," "it is better and customarily made with a bread dough."

Dough:

1 cup lukewarm water

1 ounce fresh yeast (or 2 packages dry yeast)

1 pound all-purpose flour (3 1/2 to 4 cups)

1/3 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

If you have a heavy-duty mixer, use it with the flat beater. If not, make the dough by hand.

Mix the water and yeast together until yeast is dissolved. Mix all ingredients together and work with the mixer for about 2 minutes on medium speed, or about 5 minutes by hand, kneading until dough is satiny and smooth. Place in a bowl, cover with a towel and set in a warm place (such as an oven with the pilot on) and let rise until it doubles in volume (about 60 minutes).

At this point, if you push the dough with your finger, it should not spring back and the indentation should remain. Break the dough down and divide into halves. Spread each half on a cookie sheet (use your hands - you do not need a rolling pin or flour). Spread it to obtain 2 wheels, each at least 12 inches in diameter. The dough will be thicker on the edges.

Filling:

2 1/2 pounds onions (about 10 to 12 onions, depending on size), peeled and sliced very thin (about 8 cups)

1/3 cup olive oil

1 cup water

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Dash ground cloves

4 to 6 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed, and chopped fine (about 2 teaspoons)

While the dough is rising, make the filling. Place all ingredients except garlic into a large kettle and bring to a boil. Let boil on high heat until all the water has evaporated (about 12 to 14 minutes).

By this time, the onions are cooked. Keep cooking on medium heat to brown the onions slightly (about 8 minutes), mixing once in a while. Add the garlic, mix and set aside.

Topping:

2 dozen anchovy fillets in oil (see note)

1 cup of small dry black olives (found in Greek or Italian markets)

Spread the onion mixture filling evenly on both wheels of dough. Arrange the anchovy fillets on top in a crisscross pattern and scatter the olives over the surface. Cook in a preheated, 425-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes or until the dough is nicely browned. Serves 8.

Note: If the anchovies are too salty, place in cool water for a couple of hours. Drain on paper towels before using.

Pissaladiere

Recipe from "Lulu's Provencal Table" by Richard Olney.

1 cup flour

Salt

10 tablespoons cold butter, diced

About 4 tablespoons cold water

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 pounds sweet onions, finely sliced

Salt and pepper

8 salt anchovies, rinsed and filleted, or 16 fillets

1/2 cup (2 ounces) nicoise olives

Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl, add the diced butter and crumble the flour mixture and butter together, lightly and rapidly, picking up portions and rubbing loosely between thumb and fingertips. Above all, don't overwork the pastry. Gather it together with a fork and a little cold water, wrap it in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before rolling it out.

Warm 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large earthenware poelon or heavy saute pan, add the onions and salt, and cook, covered, over very low heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, for an hour or more or until they are so soft as to form a semi-puree. Remove the lid and continue to cook until much of the liquid has evaporated; the onions should remain absolutely uncolored. Season with pepper.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. With the palm of your hand, flatten the ball of pastry on a generously floured marble slab or other work surface, sprinkle over plenty of flour, and roll it out to a thickness of approximately 1/8 inch. Roll it up on the rolling pin and unroll it onto a large baking sheet. Roll up the edges and crimp them, either with your thumb, dipped repeatedly in flour, or with the tines of a fork.

Spread the onion puree evenly over the pastry, press the anchovy fillets into place in a simple design - latticework or wheel spokes - and push the olives into the puree to complete the design.

Dribble 2 tablespoons of olive oil over the surface and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the edges of the pastry are golden and crisp. Serve hot or tepid. Cut into small wedges or squares to serve with the aperitif, or cut into large wedges as a first course. Serves 8.

Pissaladieres

From Gourmet magazine, February 1992.

2 pounds onions, sliced

1/4 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 teaspoon sugar

1 17 1/4-ounce package frozen puff pastry (2 sheets), thawed

An egg wash made by beating 1 large egg with 1 teaspoon water

6 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided

1 2-ounce can flat anchovy fillets, drained and cut lengthwise into thin strips

28 nicoise or other brine-cured black olives, pitted if desired

In a heavy kettle, cook the onions with the rosemary, the thyme, and salt and pepper to taste in the butter and the oil, covered, over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 30 minutes, or until they are soft but not golden. Add the sugar and cook the mixture, uncovered, stirring, for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the excess liquid is evaporated.

Transfer the onion mixture to a fine sieve and let it drain for 10 minutes. The onion mixture may be made 1 day in advance and kept covered and chilled.

Roll each sheet of puff pastry lightly on a floured surface into an 11-inch-by-10-inch rectangle and transfer the rectangles to a baking sheet.

Brush a 1-inch border around the edges of each rectangle with some of the egg wash and fold in the edges on all sides to form a 1/2 -inch border, mitering the corners if desired.

Brush the folded borders with the remaining egg wash. Using the back of a knife, score the borders in a crosshatch pattern.

Sprinkle 4 tablespoons of the Parmesan evenly over the rectangles, divide the onion mixture between them, spreading it evenly, and arrange the anchovy strips and the olives decoratively on top.

Sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons Parmesan evenly over the tarts and bake the tarts in the upper third of a preheated, 400-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the pastry is puffed and golden.

The tarts may be made 1 day in advance, kept covered loosely at room temperature, and reheated.

Makes 2 tarts.

Features reporter Elaine Beebe Lapriore can be reached by phone at 338-2358 and by e-mail at elapriore@guardnet.com.

CAPTION(S):

A pissaladiere made by Marche restaurant owner Stephanie Pearl Kimmel is a sturdy onion tart flavored with herbs, nicoise olives and anchovies.
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Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Recipe
Date:Apr 3, 2002
Words:2047
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