Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Asparagus tart and Mardi Gras masks

Possibly the strangest picture I've taken in the restaurant.
'Fur and Feathers' was the original theme apparently, until someone pointed out that this was July and could result in guests perspiring, despairing and expiring! So, Jennifer's group - self declared 'ladies who lunch', and who have been doing so for nearly two decades - decided upon 'Mardi Gras'. Hence the masks... and the crayons on the table.

The menu planning for the group had been quite testing, arriving eventually at a three way split for mains: lamb, fish and vegetable dish. I normally try and avoid this, mainly because of timing issues. You can't rehearse a three way split aside from making all three dishes and that's obviously an expensive endeavour. So you plan well and hope you've covered all contingencies. I don't want to be slicing prime Romney Salt Marsh lamb chump only to realise that the vegetarian option needs another ten minutes in the oven. You get one shot with a supper club, especially with fish.

So I wanted a simple starter. Simple but delicious obviously, and one that needed little faff at service. An asparagus and ricotta tart was the conclusion. My first.

I sampled a few recipes and combined the best elements of all. I probably would have added some lardons of smokey pancetta but half the group was vegetarian. The added ricotta improves a simple quiche I think. A few of the recipes ask you to blanch the asparagus for two to three minutes and then bake for half an hour. This, I am confident, would result in sludge pie. Unless it is very woody, in which case it should be peeled anyway, I blanch mine for no more than 90 seconds. The blanching process - plunging into boiling and then iced water - is important too for the colour. Roasted asparagus can take on a very unappealing khaki hue otherwise. Not nice - unless you're sheltering from enemy combatants in the desert. I also used a long, oblong tart tin; it seemed to make sense, allowing a greater density of asparagus than a round one. You obviously have a lot of trimmings when cutting the spears to size. I put these at the bottom of the tart, useful also to stop the top layer submerging.

I served the tart with a simple salad of pea shoots and lambs lettuce in a tomato vinaigrette. In retrospect I would have added some oven roasted tomatoes and/or bacon lardons.

Asparagus and Ricotta Tart

Trim the woody parts off about 30 medium thickness spears of asparagus. Blanch in boiling water for 90 seconds and then place into ice water. You need the spears to be of similar thickness. None of your jumbo stuff, nor the wilting baby stems.

Take 300g of pastry. I made my usual Roux brothers' recipe Pâte Brisée but normal shop bought shortcrust or flaky would be fine. I shot mine through with some chopped rosemary and thyme and a knife point of cayenne. if you want to make your own, there's a great video on the Chef Steps site. [Although if you do watch the video, look out for the rolling out bit. They claim that's 3mm thickness. if it is, I'm not a fat Welshman.]
Chill your pastry and roll out to fit your tin, allowing a good overhang. The overhang is important. The case will shrink in the oven. Chill this for at least 30 minutes. Recipes usually say to the thickness of a pound coin but I like to try for thinner if I can - disliking great slabs of cardboardy carbohydrate.  But then, I also spend far too much time making a second... and third (bloody) pastry case. It's probably the greatest cause of nocturnal howls in my household.

Take your chilled pastry case and prick all over with a fork. Line with baking paper and beans/lentils/coins etc and bake blind for 20 minutes at 180°C. The case should be a very pale beige and still pliable. Remove baking blind beans (or whatever). Now you can cut your case to the edge of the tin. I do this by gently rolling across the top with a rolling pin, it seems to crack less than when I try with a knife. and apply an egg wash all over the insides and edges. This is to waterproof the case but it makes for a much more attractive glazed bake too. Bake for a further five minutes. remove and allow to cool.

Check how long your spears need to be and cut them all to length, reserving the offcuts.

Mix together 200g of ricotta with 3 large eggs and one additional egg yolk, 300ml of double cream, a good pinch of salt and white pepper and the finely grated zest of one unwaxed lemon. Add a handful of mint leaves, chopped. Don't do as the BBC Good Food site recommends and sprinkle this on the top of the tart... unless you're a fan of mint ash. What were they thinking?

Pour some of the mix into the case, until about half way up. Pile in the asparagus offcuts and then arrange the longer spears across the top. Place in the oven and finish by pouring in enough mix to just meet the top layer of asparagus.

Bake for about 20 minutes. Check before that though. You want your cream mix to have a little wobble. But be careful. three minutes will make a difference. Check often. It may take 20 minutes, it may take 30. Allow to cool before attempting to remove from the tin.

Serve with aplomb and a light sprinkling of Maldon salt.

If you have any mixture remaining, you can always bake this with additional veg or bacon, in a ramekin or bowl as a chef's treat. Or you can leave it in the fridge for a day or two, promising yourself that you will bake it because you hate waste. And then not. And then throw it away. 

That time between noticing something in the fridge is past its best and knowing you will throw it out... and the time you actually do: that shameful interval should have a name.

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