Tuesday, January 24, 2012
A Tale of Three Tarts
Nothing facilitates culinary creativity like a well-stocked larder. And nothing is more essential to a well-stocked larder than bacon. Cuz where do you think the word larder comes from, anyway? Comes from lard, which is French for bacon. You learned something today, didn't you? You're welcome.
Actually, that derivation just occured to me as I started writing this, but it turns out it's spot on. Here's what my Webster's New Twentieth Century Unabridged has to say: "larder, n., [ME, larder; OFr, lardier, a larder, a tub for bacon; LL. lardarium, a room for meats, from L. lardum, the fat of bacon, lard.]" (Another thing I've just learned is that it's really hard to type and use the mouse with a big honkin' dictionary on your desk.)
I wish I had known that (about the etymology, not the awkward dictionary) when I was writing this essay I recorded for Wisconsin Life on Wisconsin Public Radio,"The Importance of Bacon" (a variation on a chapter in the cookbook). In light of the faddish frenzy that has arisen around bacon in the last couple of years, I'm sort of ambivalent about my role as evangelist of smoked pork belly, but that WILife essay is something of a defense and apology for my position, which I'm happy to expound upon further here.
What disturbs me about the bacon craze is, 1) The seemingly indiscriminate approach, which implies that all bacon is good, without distinguishing greatness from dreck, and 2) The culture of gluttony it seems to promote.
Now, at some level, the appeal of bacon is so great that even the worst bacon is good. But the watery, chemical-laden supermarket bargain bacon, made from pork that comes from who-knows-where, is only good because the sledge-hammer combo of salt, smoke, and fat can disguise many flaws. Set next to really good, natural bacon, from well-raised pigs, it looks like exactly what it is: rubbish. When I'm cutting bacon from one of my home-smoked slabs, I'll often taste a sliver of the "raw" stuff; I don't think you'd be tempted to do that with the $1.89-a-pound product from Bob's Food Barn.
And as for the gluttonous, drooling, stuff-your-face attitude, the bring-on-the-fat, over-the-top, clog-my-arteries, please, approach, well, I feel that's wrong at so many levels, I'm just going to let it go at that.
Pizza night chez Trout Caviar last week perfect illustrates why I glorify bacon, and other rich and wonderful products of our region--they are splendid when used in a balanced approach to cooking and eating. Combined with good bread (the crust), savory vegetable elements (onion, sauerkraut, leek, potato), a delightfully satisfying whole results, in which you can have your tart and eat it, too, literally--one recipe's worth of Bacon Onion Tart (p. 108) provided Mary and me with dinner for two nights, and a happy hour snack, to boot.
The recipe in the book has you divide the dough in half for two tarts; I did mine in thirds. Tart #1 was the traditional tarte flambée or flammekeuche, the Alsatian classic topped with crème fraîche, onions, and bacon.
For tart #2 I rinsed about a cup of sauerkraut (make your own via Trout Caviar, p. 222!), squeezed it quite dry, and sautéed it in a bit of duck fat with a small leek sliced. That mixture was combined with crème fraîche, and got a sprinkling of grated Wisconsin havarti cheese (I'm on a havarti kick recently, thanks to the Stettler Cream Havarti from Decatur Dairy in Brodhead, WI; we get it at Renee's shop in Connorsville ).
And for tart #3, I sliced a small potato as thin as I could; I spread some crème fraîche over the dough; placed the potato slices on top; scattered one thick slice of bacon in fine dice over the top; added a handful of Wisconsin "gruyère" (Roth Kase).
The tarts baked at 525 for, what, five or six minutes. You just watch for the crust to brown and the toppings to bubble. With a salad, a glass of riesling--voilà. Little better on a cold January evening; get in a brisk walk or a turn on the skis as the sun drops down through streaks of gray and pink. Sip a glass of that crisp, tart, fragrant wine as you work on putting your tarts together. Something else that really heightens culinary creativity is knowing whom to steal ideas from, and I raid the Alsatian larder regularly.
And here we are back in the larder: I decided to make this dinner mid-afternoon of the same day, and didn't have to go out for a single thing Bacon, onion, leek, 'kraut, cream, cheese, the dough makings--these are things we almost always have in stock. If I hadn't had those particular cheeses, I'd have used something else, or left it out. If my 'kraut crock was running low, I'd have taken out a packet of blanched, frozen garden kale, and used that. I'm not opposed to recipes, the dear knows, but I prefer to think in terms of methods of preparation, rather than hard and fast rules or lists of ingredients. There aren't many recipes that can't stand a certain amount of substitution or variation--and who knows, by adding your own twist, you might just come up with your new favorite dish. The spud 'za pretty much stole the show in this instance; it will find a place in the regular rotation.
One quick note on crème fraîche: You can buy this product at co-ops and better grocery stores. For the recipe in the book, I suggest just mixing sour cream and heavy cream half and half. If you have more time, you can produce a homemade version by mixing sour cream and heavy cream--a tablespoon or two of the former for each cup of the latter--and setting the mixture in a warm place--your oven with the light turned on, for instance--overnight. The next day it should be nice and thick and tangy.
Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw