When it comes to food I can be very impulsive. My mother, of course, tried to teach me how to write a meal plan. She was a master meal-planner. Each week she’d sit down at the kitchen table with all the local sales ads, her big envelope of coupons (which I was in charge of organizing), and her recipe boxes and books. Then, with all the options laid out before her, she would fold a blank sheet of paper in half lengthwise and begin “The Plan.” On the right side of the paper she’d write the mains and sides and sometimes desserts for each day of the week; the left was for her list, separated by store, by department, and denoted by coupon. Each meal was precisely determined by what happened to be on sale at which store and by which coupons in her envelope would get her the very best deal on each and everything on her list.
Then, The Plan would hang on the fridge so we always knew exactly what to expect at dinnertime. If, say “Calico Beans” happened to be on the menu, I might invite myself over to a friend’s house for dinner. If, instead, the menu said “Enchiladas” I would certainly ask if my friends could eat dinner with us. This is what worked for her. If she had a complete meal plan with a stocked fridge and pantry, she could sleep at night.
I can say, for certain, I did not inherit this trait from my mother. In fact, I’m the exact opposite. I can’t even begin to visualize a meal plan unless I’m standing in the market and all the options are laid out before me there. Only when I can see what’s fresh, what meat happens to be behind the butcher’s counter, which fish has just arrived and which vegetables look perky, can I start to formulate a basic Plan. Perhaps the asparagus is especially plump, or the spinach is the most beautiful shade of green. Then I’ll think to myself, Spinach meatballs sound good. And I’ll have the butcher grind some meat for me, and maybe I’ll pick up a bag of orecchiette. At that point, I’ll pull out the little notebook from my purse (the one that should have a grocery list written in it, but doesn’t) and scribble, “spinach meatballs w/ orecchiette,” on what will become less of a plan and more of a list of options. The spinach meatballs may end up being lunch instead of dinner if I have a little extra time. Or the spinach and meat may not even make it into the same dish at all. The meat may end up in a bolognese to go with the orecchiette and the spinach may be cooked with cream and served with the steaks my husband might pick up tomorrow evening. The point is, where my mother’s hard and fast plans look like detailed expense reports, mine look like abstract idea clouds with options that may never even make it to the dinner table.
But that’s the key – options. If I have options, then I can sleep at night. And that was exactly how this spinach tart came about. When I saw the spinach in the market – fresh and crisp and still covered in dirt – I thought how beautiful it looked. When the spinach meatballs didn’t work out, I decided to stir the spinach into minestrone. But it was so unseasonably warm that I couldn’t bear to make soup. But still, the spinach was on my mind. I decided to make creamed spinach to serve with two succulent rib-eyes. But we decided to have a simple salad and oven fries with the steaks, instead, and by this time the spinach was looking neither fresh nor crisp. How to save it? I wondered. But here’s where those options come into play, because even though the meals in my idea cloud didn’t worked out, I always have a few fall-back options in my back pocket. A safety net. And one of those is a tart. I make tarts all the time. Savoury and sweet, a tart shell can be filled with just about anything. This one is filled with creamed spinach and a little feta, to give it some body, and baked until beautifully golden and brown.
Creamed Spinach Tart (Tarte aux Épinards)
for the pastry:
1 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
6 TBSP cold butter, cut into cubes
1/4 cup ice water
1/4 tsp apple cider vinegar
for the filling:
2 lbs fresh spinach, washed and roughly chopped
1 large red onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 TBSP butter
1 tsp flour
2/3 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
1/4 cup finely grated parmesan
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
To make the pastry whisk together the flour, sugar and salt. Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut the butter into the flour mixture until the butter is the size of very small peas and is evenly distributed in the flour. Mix the vinegar and water and add it to the flour 1 Tablespoon at a time, mixing until the dough just comes together into a ball. (You may not use all the liquid, and that’s okay.) If the dough seems too dry mix in an additional teaspoon or two of water. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and press into a disk shape. Place in the refrigerator for 45 minutes to an hour.
Pre-heat the oven to 400 F (200 C). Butter an 11-inch (28-cm) tart pan with a removable bottom. On a floured surface roll out the dough so that it fits in the pan with about 1 inch of overhang. Transfer the dough to the pan and press it into the corners and up the edges. Fold the excess dough back in on itself to reinforce the edges. Prick the bottom of the tart shell all over with a fork and place the tart shell in the freezer for 30 minutes or until very firm but not completely frozen. This will keep the shell from shrinking when baked.
Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Wash and roughly chop the spinach. Leaving some of the water clinging to the leaves, place the spinach in a large, dry pot over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently until the spinach is wilted and has released much of its water (about 5 minutes). Pour into a colander placed over a bowl and allow the spinach to cool and drain. When cool enough to handle, press the remaining liquid from the spinach. Set aside.
In a large skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of butter. Add the sliced onion and a pinch of salt and pepper and cook until the onion just starts to soften. Add the garlic and cook a minute or two longer. Stir in the flour and cook for a minute. Whisk in the cream and bring to a simmer. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the ricotta, nutmeg and half of the parmesan. Fold in the reserved spinach. Add additional salt and pepper, if needed.
Remove the tart shell from the freezer (it should be very cold and solid at this point). Spoon in the filling. Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan cheese over top. Bake in a preheated oven for 30 minutes, until the filling is bubbly and brown and the crust is golden. Allow to cool slightly before removing from the tart pan. Cut into slices and serve hot or at room temperature.