For as long as I can remember my family has had a penchant to get together at least once a week, preferably over a long Sunday lunch with friends gathering around the dinner table.
My English childhood was dotted with epic walks - where we would traipse across the Heath in London – only to return home to huge, warming Sunday lunches complete with a roast leg of lamb, spuds, a large green salad followed by apple crumble topped with luscious cream. All sorts of friends would turn up during the course of the afternoon, pull up a chair and partake in whatever stage of the meal we happened to be in at that moment in time, a revolving meal that lasted hours where people occasionally sloped off to have a little snooze, to re-join the meal later on. This tradition has percolated down over the years in different towns and countries, but the essence remains the same. Gather friends together, eat good food, laugh a lot, relax.
These meals have evolved over time. The food served was a reflection of the climate and locale. In France the meals took on a decidedly Mediterranean bent. In the summer we’d sit under the trailing vine that covered the terrace outside the kitchen of our old farmhouse. On the table you’d find plates of melon with prosciutto, local goat cheese, pates from the market and fresh tomatoes with basil and a drizzle of olive oil. Simple food infused with sunshine.
Once a year we would have a giant meal in the garden to celebrate my brother’s birthday. The morning always began with decorations, particularly the hanging of a large canopy over a swathe of the garden and over the old, tile-covered well that stood center stage and served as a vast tabletop. Next would come the preparation of all the dishes that usually included salads, PÃ¢té en croÃ»te, ratatouille and Tarte a l’Onion. Everyone would help themselves, find a spot on the blanket and rug covered lawn and eat al fresco amongst the pillows. A modern Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe (without the naked people!). This meal was one of our summer highlights and whenever I subsequently ate tarte a l’onion I’d be transported back to the dappled sunlight of those festive afternoons.
Perhaps this is why, over time, it became a favorite dish of mine. Many times I made it to feed my fellow students whilst at university in London while we crammed for exams, over – what else – lunch. I still have the old oak table we sat at. It’s hard to believe now that six or seven of us could fit around this small table, but we did, discussing all the topics of the day; to take part in the ‘ban the bomb’ marches that swept the British capitol, strikes, elections, where to go during the long summer break and how on earth were we going to get through all the work we had piled up in front of us? We felt that we were in the midst of ‘everything important happening in the world’ and would convene weekly, if not more, to debate, and to eat. There were meals made memorable by heated differences of opinion; some touching, by announcements of betrothals and others melancholy; by the loss of one of our own. To this day, when we gather together again, those meals shared around that table always come up in conversation and inevitably someone will mention that tarte.
Like a treasured talisman, this dish has accompanied me on my travels around the planet. When I arrived in Los Angeles it was my ‘go to’ dish. On Sundays, after an energetic game of beach volleyball with a gaggle of ex-pat friends, we’d drive back to the house and cook together, barefoot from the sandy beach. We’d make this, roast chickens, ratatouille and a large green salad. Provence in California. I felt at home.
As with many food-obsessed immigrants I soon discovered the local treasures of the farmers markets filled with bok choy, daikon, pomegranates, persimmons, pluots, watermelon radish, curly kale and golden beets; vegetables that I had not known, let alone savored in Europe, and I delved into them with gusto making new salads and other lunchtime treats for our friends and family’s weekend repast. My ‘go to’ dish was – for a long time - put aside… until recently, when I taught a class at Buttonwood Farm and Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley. The event took place in a private garden, steps from the tasting room. Tables had been set under trees adorned with produce from their farm in the form of zucchini, large onions and grape vines. A warm, scented breeze drifted across the bucolic setting as guests sampled the wine and tasted the salads. It was a picturesque and enchanting afternoon. It made me think of Provence and our old farmhouse and of all the Sunday lunches shared on the terrace by the kitchen.
I had the added treat of taking home the freshly picked zucchini and onions from Buttonwood after the event. As I unpacked the vegetables in the kitchen it occurred to me that I could make an onion tart – a nostalgic nod to summer’s past – but this time with a twist. There were LOTS of zucchini, so what about grilling them and adding that to the tart? Of course, if I was about to make a large onion tart I’d need lots of people to share it with. The next day the house filled up with friends bringing wine, cheese, fruit and other delicacies to share. We set up tables in the garden. I made the new version of the onion tart and a big dish of Ratatouille. We sat in dappled sunlight, ate good food, discussed local politics, the drought, and upcoming summer plans. We laughed a lot. Some of us had a snooze in the shade. I felt as though I had come full circle: a Provencal afternoon on the American Riviera.
ONION AND ZUCCHINI TART WITH AN OLIVE CRUST
The tart is made in two parts: preparing and cooking the vegetables and preparing and cooking the dough. You can also make a classic Tarte a l’onion and not add any zucchini to the tart. The choice is yours.
For the Vegetables:
6-7 large yellow onions – peeled, halved and finely sliced
Salt and pepper
6 large zucchini – ends trimmed then cut on a bias in thin slices (you can also use different varieties of zucchini and squash for this)
For the pastry:
9 oz unbleached all-purpose flour
5 ½ oz slightly softened butter – cut up into small pieces.
1 large egg
Zest of 1 lemon
Pinch of salt
½ cup olives – pitted and chopped
Ratatouille, like the tarte, is the epitome of Provencal fare. The dish originated in Nice. My grandfather’s family comes from the same part of the world and our family recipe has been passed down through generations. My mother taught me to make this dish.
Ratatouille is traditionally made with the addition of red and green peppers. They are thinly sliced and also cooked separately before adding to the onion mixture – usually after the zucchini but before the tomatoes. I prefer to make it without the peppers. There are many recipes for cooking Ratatouille, each varying in the order that one cooks the vegetables. Purists insist (as my great Aunt did) that each vegetable is cooked separately before being mixed in with the onions as this seals in the taste of each vegetable. I absolutely agree and believe that it’s worth the extra effort to prepare it this way. One last note – do not cover your Ratatouille as this will cause too much moisture in the dish.
Serves 8-10 people
4-5 medium yellow onions – cut in half and then thinly sliced
1 large or 2 medium aubergines (eggplant)- thinly sliced and cut into small cubes.
4-6 courgettes (zucchini) – cut into quarters lengthwise and then into small cubes
8 – 10 medium tomatoes – Romas work well – quartered and diced
3 cloves garlic – either finely chopped or crushed
Salt and pepper
1 bay leaf
LEMON AND CRÃˆME FRAICHE MOUSSE
This mousse is very light and pairs well with fresh berries or grilled peaches, apricots or pluots. I like to serve it with a little shortbread too.
Serves 8 people
12 fl oz whipping cream
3 oz sugar
Zest and juice of 2 lemons
6 oz crÃ¨me fraiche
½ teaspoon vanilla paste
The whites of 3 large eggs