- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

For the past few weeks I have been fine-tuning a recipe for asparagus and mushroom tarts, a dish that will be the opener for a spring dinner class I am teaching this month. After many attempts, I finally came up with a winning combination, using thin asparagus spears, which are easy to find at this time of year, and shiitake mushrooms.

For the filling, I sauteed the thinly sliced mushrooms in butter until lightly browned, then combined them with the spears, which were cut into 1-inch pieces but not cooked. For seasonings, tarragon and lemon zest added bright, fresh notes, while a little creme fraiche and grated Gruyere helped bind the mixture. The filling was spooned into puff pastry squares, made conveniently with purchased dough.

These elegant tarts look as if they take far more effort to assemble than the work required. Count on 15 minutes to prep and assemble the filling, and another 5 for cutting out the pastry squares.

The squares and the filling can be prepared several hours ahead so that at serving time you will need only to spoon the asparagus and mushroom melange onto the pastries, then bake them for 20 minutes.

I am planning to serve these tarts as a first course, followed by a lamb ragout and a watercress salad. However, they would also make a great entree for a special occasion brunch or luncheon, such as a bridal shower. Add a green salad, a platter of sliced smoked salmon or prosciutto, and you have a chic midday menu.

Another thing I discovered is that these tarts can be offered as appetizers. Just cut each tart (a single recipe yields 4 tarts) into four equal squares, arrange these bite-size portions on a platter, and serve with chilled white wine.

It might have taken me longer than usual to perfect this recipe, but it was worth the effort. I am counting on using these tarts for all kinds of spring entertaining.

Asparagus and mushroom tarts

½ pound slim asparagus

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3½ to 4 ounces sliced, stemmed shiitake mushrooms (or 5 to 6 ounces whole shiitakes, tough stems removed and discarded, and mushrooms cut into 1/4-inch julienne strips)

3/4 teaspoon dried tarragon leaves

3/4 teaspoon grated lemon zest

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 sheet puff pastry from a 17.3 ounce package, defrosted

1/4 cup creme fraiche (see note)

1/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese

Fresh tarragon sprigs for garnish, optional

Arrange a rack at center position and preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cut off and discard the tough ends of the asparagus. Then cut spears on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces and place them in a medium mixing bowl.

Melt butter in a medium skillet set over medium-high heat. When hot, add mushrooms and saute, stirring, until softened and lightly browned, about 4 minutes. Remove mushrooms from skillet and add to the bowl with asparagus.

Add tarragon, lemon zest, ½ teaspoon salt, and several grinds of black pepper, and stir well to mix. Cool mixture 5 minutes, then stir in the creme fraiche and Gruyere. (Filling can be prepared 2 hours ahead; cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature 30 minutes before using.)

Place puff pastry sheet on a lightly floured work surface and, with a rolling pin, gently flatten the seams. Cut sheet into four equal squares.

With a sharp knife, lightly score a 3/4-inch border around the inside edge of each pastry square, taking care not to cut all the way through the dough. (You simply want to trace a frame within each square, which will rise around the filling and form the sides of each tart.) Transfer squares to a baking sheet. (Squares can be prepared 2 hours ahead; cover and refrigerate.)

Divide asparagus mixture evenly and spread within borders of each square. Bake tarts until sides have puffed and are golden brown and filling is hot, about 20 minutes. Watch carefully.

Garnish each tart with a fresh tarragon sprig if desired. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Creme fraiche is widely available in most groceries in the dairy section. If you can’t find it, the following recipe works well.

1 cup heavy cream

1/3 cup sour cream

Whisk cream and sour cream together in a medium nonreactive bowl. Let stand at room temperature until thickened 6 hours or longer. Cover and refrigerate. (Creme fraiche can be stored up to 1 week, covered, in refrigerator.) Makes about 11/3 cups.

Betty Rosbottom is a cooking school director and author of “The Big Book of Backyard Cooking” (Chronicle Books).

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