- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, I spent hours in the kitchen preparing for dinner parties. I thought nothing of making my own pasta, pates and pastries from scratch, and my menus were so long that they could take up a whole page when written out.

An evening’s fare typically started with an array of homemade appetizers, continued with a substantial first course, was followed by an entree and several sides, and ended with dessert, coffee and liqueurs. Thank goodness those days are over. I get weary just thinking about such fancy flights of entertaining.

Fast-forward to today to see how times have changed. No longer do I feel that every morsel I offer guests needs to be prepared exclusively by me, and those bloated menus, which had us eating until midnight, have been reduced sensibly.

Take, for example, a small get-together my husband and I hosted this past weekend. At the last minute, I invited another couple to come for a casual Friday-night supper. A delicious slice of goat cheese (from Humbolt Fog) served with lightly toasted bread slices and red grapes was all that was needed to get the evening off to a good start.

For the main course, which was served and eaten in the kitchen, there was a pot of homemade carrot soup, a leek-and-pancetta tart, and a green salad. Dessert was simple: tart apples and fresh Medjool dates.

I took advantage of several time-saving products. The potage was prepared with baby carrots that were already peeled and needed only to be sliced, and the salad was assembled with pre-washed, table-ready greens. The tart, which turned out to be the night’s favorite dish, was a breeze to make because I used purchased puff pastry for the crust.

For the tart, I cut out a 9-inch round from the dough and traced a border inside it. Then sauteed leeks bound with some creme fraiche were spread in the center of the pastry shell and topped with grated Gruyere and diced pancetta. When baked, the borders miraculously rise up to form the sides of the tart. Oh, and did I mention that I even found the pancetta already diced at a local Trader Joe’s?

After our guests had left, I realized how much I had enjoyed this stress-free meal. Our guests liked it too, and called the next day to say thank you and to propose that next time we come to their house for another simple Friday-night supper.

Leek and pancetta tart

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, about 9 inches square and 1/8 inch thick, defrosted in the refrigerator (see note)

2 ounces pancetta, cut into 1/4 inch dice

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts only (about 5 medium leeks)

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 cup creme fraiche

1/3 cup grated Gruyere cheese

Place the pastry sheet on a lightly floured work surface, and with a rolling pin, gently flatten any seams in the dough, then roll dough into a 10-inch square.

Using the removable bottom of a 9-inch tart or springform pan as a guide, cut a 9-inch circle from the dough and transfer it to a baking sheet.

With a small, sharp knife gently trace a ½-inch border inside the circle, taking care not to cut all the way through the dough. (You simply want to trace a frame within the circle, which will rise around the filling and form the sides of the tart.)

Refrigerate tart shell while you prepare the filling. (Tart shell can be prepared 1 day ahead; keep covered and refrigerated.)

Arrange a rack at center position and preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Place a medium, heavy skillet over medium heat and when hot, saute pancetta until crisp and golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

Add olive oil to the same skillet and place pan over medium heat. When oil is hot, add leeks and saute, stirring, until softened but not browned, about 8 minutes. Season with thyme, salt and pepper. Remove leek mixture from heat and stir in the creme fraiche. Cool mixture 5 minutes.

Spread the leek mixture evenly within the inside circle of the tart shell. Sprinkle leeks with cheese, then with pancetta. Bake until sides have puffed and are golden brown, about 20 minutes.

Cool 5 minutes, then cut tart into 6 slices. Serves 6 as an appetizer, first course or side.

Note: A 17.3-ounce package of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry contains two sheets, each about 9 inches square.

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


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