A Savory Vegetable Tart
The veritable definition of a crowd-pleaser
One of the hazards of a career in food writing is that you are seldom able to cook the same recipe twice. There are simply too many others to get to, or you’ve had to test something over and over to perfection, thoroughly losing your appetite for it in the process. ASK ME HOW I KNOW.
But some recipes just stick. You discover them one day, make them the next and suddenly they’re a mainstay of your cooking (or baking) arsenal for years and you can’t imagine life without them. I find it fascinating to think about why some recipes have this quality and so many others don’t. Even ones you absolutely loved in the moment!
Years ago—it was warm out and everyone was wearing a dress—I was invited to lunch at a friend’s house. Cynthia, the hostess, lives in a beautiful mid-century house, all flat angles and huge glass windows, in southern Berlin, where pine trees crane into the sky and cars rumble awkwardly down cobblestoned streets. Cynthia, who owns Barcomi’s in Berlin, had set up a table in her front yard. (Was it someone’s baby shower? It must have been.) There were jugs of freshly squeezed orange juice and delicate cups of excellent coffee. She’d made fruit salad and a cold soup, homemade granola and a beautiful layer cake. But the pièce de résistance, at least for me, was the rustic savory tart sitting at the center of the table.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that tart would become a fixture of my cooking life. I can’t even picture Cynthia’s tart anymore, because it’s been supplanted many times over by my own version of it. But I know it had a pastry base (surely made by hand) and I think it was topped with caramelized onions, and there was definitely some cheese. I think. Thyme? Must have been. Sliced tomatoes, appealingly oven-shriveled? Yes, though I later changed them to cherry tomatoes. In any case, it was very simple and it was very delicious. It made an impression.
At home, I started making Cynthia’s tart with two important shortcuts. First of all, I always used a store-bought round of pastry rather than making my own. Secondly, I used a bag of pre-grated cheese (Gouda, Emmentaler, Cheddar, all of them work). These two switches made it possible to churn out delectable savory tarts in very little time and it ended up becoming my go-to recipe for any potluck or picnic I was ever invited to. It was elegant, vegetarian, easy to eat either out of hand or with a fork and knife, just as good eaten piping hot or at room temperature. However, it also made for a very feasible weeknight dinner, paired with a lightly dressed salad or some fermented cabbage. In other words, the veritable definition of a crowd-pleaser.
These days, when I’m making this for my family, I add a fennel bulb to the caramelizing onions, for sweetness and bulk. I use a good pinch of this herb rub to flavor the onions and fennel. I have switched the order in which I layer the vegetables and the cheese, though you could put the cheese down first, if you prefer. I recommend using a good-quality store-bought pie or tart dough (of course you can also make your own), though I’ve also made this with puff pastry and that works too. You can make this with twice as many onions, if you like, and leave out the fennel. (Though you should know that three onions makes for an elegantly slim tart, perfect for a party.) You can let the onions caramelize for much longer, making for a richer flavor, or use a different herb (oregano, for example, or fennel seed!). You can use sliced tomatoes (only in summer, though, please) instead of cherry.
Basically, you can and should use this template as inspiration for your own savory tart, just as I did with Cynthia’s on that fine, warm day. And who knows, maybe you’ll be the one, ten years from now, wondering just how this random little recipe became such an integral part of your cooking repertoire.
Savory Vegetable Tart
Makes one 9-inch tart
Note: If using puff pastry, increase the oven temperature to 200°C/400°F and bake for 25 to 30 minutes.
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium yellow onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 fennel bulb, cored, quartered and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon dried sage and rosemary, crumbled
1 disc of pie dough (regular or gluten-free)
1 1/4 cups grated Gouda, Emmentaler or Cheddar cheese
2 handfuls cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
Place the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and the salt and pepper Cook, stirring now and then, for about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the fennel and the herbs and stir to combine. Cook, stirring now and then, for another 10 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F. Place the pie dough (on parchment) on a baking sheet.
Scrape the onion mixture onto the pie dough and spread out evenly, leaving about an inch at the edges. Top evenly with the grated cheese. Arrange the halved tomatoes, cut sides up, on top of the cheese. Fold the edges of the tart dough inwards, covering just a bit of the filling.
Place the sheet in the oven and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown and the tomatoes have shriveled. Serve immediately or let cool completely before serving. The tart will keep for a day.