- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

A few weeks ago, a friend who helps me test recipes for this column arrived with a plea for help. Her 24-year-old son, a budding epicure and a student at a nearby law school, had telephoned to say he was coming home to celebrate his birthday the following day.

There was, however, one small hitch. He was bringing his new girlfriend, who was a vegetarian. He assured his mother, a passionate cook, that the current woman in his life was crazy about food but that she shunned meat and fish. My friend, challenged to prepare a memorable meal, asked for suggestions.

We had been working on a delicious tomato-and-blue-cheese tart that week, so I proposed that she use the dish as a starter. For the main course, I described a wild mushroom lasagna, a favorite of my family and a dish I have served often to vegetarian guests. It could be offered with an arugula salad tossed in a tart vinaigrette dressing, along with a basket of warm ciabatta.

Dessert, naturally, had to be a cake, and my colleague already had chosen a confection to top with two dozen candles.

The tart turned out to be the big winner of the evening. The honoree and his companion raved about the robust taste of this tempting opener and helped themselves to seconds, then thirds.

The savory pie is simple to prepare. An exceptionally crispy crust made with cream cheese, butter, flour and a generous seasoning of cayenne pepper is blended in a food processor, then patted into a tart pan with a removable bottom.

After half an hour in the oven, the golden pastry round is removed and topped with bits of creamy blue cheese and a layer of halved grape tomatoes. A drizzle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil is added just before the tart is popped back into the oven for a few more minutes.

The tart can be prepared and baked hours ahead, left at room temperature, then reheated quickly.

For serving, you can cut the pie into thin wedges and offer them with cocktail napkins as appetizers. Or, for a first course, it can be cut into six large slices and served on small plates with forks. Either way, this tart, with its flaky crust and delectable topping of sweet tomatoes and salty cheese, is a worthy opener for vegetarians — and the rest of us.

Savory tomato-and-blue-cheese tart

The tart can be made 3 hours ahead. Leave it at cool room temperature and reheat in preheated 350-degree oven until warmed through, 8 to 10 minutes.

CRUST:

1 cup flour

4 ounces cream cheese, chilled and diced (½-inch pieces)

1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, chilled and diced (½-inch pieces)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

TOPPING:

4 ounces creamy blue cheese, such as Bleu d’Auvergne, finely crumbled

1 pint grape tomatoes, halved lengthwise (see note)

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

Salt

1½ tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 scallions (roots discarded), chopped to include 2 inches of green stems

Have ready a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.

For the crust, place flour, cream cheese, butter, salt and cayenne pepper in a food processor. Pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal.

Remove and knead mixture into a smooth mass, then press it with your fingers in an even layer over the bottom, not up sides, of tart pan.

Smooth dough with the back of a spoon. The crust will be thick.

Freeze crust 15 minutes to firm. Bake on rack in center of preheated 375-degree oven until golden brown, about 30 minutes.

Remove crust from oven and cool 5 minutes. Sprinkle cheese evenly over crust. Arrange tomatoes in a single layer over the cheese, cut sides up. Whisk together oil and vinegar in a medium bowl, and drizzle mixture over the tomatoes, then sprinkle with salt.

Return to oven; bake until cheese has melted and tomatoes are hot, 10 to 12 minutes.

Cool tart 5 to 10 minutes, and then remove sides of tart pan. To serve, place tart on a platter. Mix together parsley and scallion to sprinkle over tart. Cut tart into thin wedges and serve with paper cocktail napkins, or cut into 6 slices and serve on plates with forks. Makes 6 servings as an appetizer or first course.

Note: Small grape tomatoes, which have a sweet flavor, work better than larger cherry tomatoes in this recipe.

TRIBUNEMEDIASERVICES

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