The last time I was in France was in the summer of 2004. It was at the tail end of our year abroad living in London. One of the best things about that year is that I got to go to Paris four times in one year – heaven for a Francophile like me. We would take the Tube to Waterloo station, get on the Eurostar (which is the train that goes under the English Channel), and less than three hours later, we would be in Paris. No airports, no airport security, and no getting from the airport way out in the middle of nowhere into the city. We went from heart of the city to heart of the city. Truly civilized.
As much as I love Paris (and I love Paris), I have never really had great dining experiences there. I have delighted in bakeries and charcuteries and still can taste the felafel sandwiches that are everywhere in the Marais district, but eating out in restaurants? Disappointing. For me anyway.
Interestingly, that didn’t hold true in other parts of France. At the end of that year abroad, Randy and I rented a car in Paris and took our time going south and east to meet up with some Seattle friends in Provence. We spent two nights in the Loire Valley, two nights in Lyons, and one night in an incredible part of the country called the Gorge du Tarn, a place I had been 15 years earlier on a bike.
All along the way, we ate well. At roadside stands, the meals were three courses, fresh, and good. I had wonderful salads and pizzas and vegetable plates that chefs would put together for me when nothing else sounded good. In Lyons, which some people call the food capital of France, a man actually shook his head and said he was sorry for me when I asked if they had anything vegetarian. Not sorry that they couldn’t accommodate me, sorry that I was going to miss out on the delights (i.e. meat) inside.
Once we got to Provence, we stayed in an amazing house owned by an Anglo/American couple. We were not in any town, but close to several tiny ones that in spite of their size, had terrific food on offer. We were able to drive to Nimes to see the Tour de France come through which was really thrilling, even for a non-bike enthusiast. Most nights we stayed close to home and cooked in our sweet little villa and ate in at the open air picnic tables to the sound of cicadas.
A few nights we went out and those simple meals were some of the best I have ever had in France. Provencal cooking is deeply rooted in the seasons and we were there at prime time – July. I had no trouble eating as a vegetarian, even if there was nothing on the menu for me. The chefs seemed to be delighted to whip something up with the bounty available to them. One of my very favorite things I had was a Pissladiere or Onion Tart. Traditionally this is made with anchovies, but a wonderful chef in a very small town left them off for me. In this same lovely restaurant, when they asked me what I would like to drink I told them that I was pregnant. “Ah, champagne!” was their solution. I love France.
Before the recipe, let’s talk about onions. The only trick I have ever used to stop crying while slicing or chopping that even remotely works, is to breathe only through my mouth and not nose. Even so, I have to walk away several times in the process so my mascara doesn’t run all down my face. To get good caramelization, get some really good color on them at medium-high heat. Don’t worry if there are burn marks at the bottom of your pan – when you turn the heat to low and cover them, a lot of liquid will be released and that will come up easily. If you don’t get the color to start, the onions will be kind of a pale brown – still delicious but not as pretty.
This recipe was designed to be cut into 2 inch pieces for appetizers, but I cut it into wedges and serve it for dinner. Either way it is delicious. I find the best way to thaw puff pastry is to let it sit in the fridge overnight. If you want to cut this recipe in half, take one sheet of puff pastry out while it is still frozen and re-freeze the other half, wrapped in it’s plastic.
3 tbsp. olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
5 pounds onions, sliced and cut into 1/4 inch thick rings
1 tbsp. fresh thyme, plus 8 sprigs for garnish
1 bay leaf
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Flour, for dusting
1 17 oz. package frozen puff pastry (2 unbaked sheets), thawed
1 large egg, lightly beaten, for egg wash
20 small cherry tomatoes
20 Kalamata olives, pitted and halved
For the tomatoes: Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Toss tomatoes with 2 tsp. olive oil, a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Roast for 30-40 minutes, until slightly shriveled but still maintaining shape. (Can be made one day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Return to room temperature before using.)
For the onions: Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, 3-5 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the onions and cook, stirring every 5 minutes, until the onions are slightly golden, about 25 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the thyme, the bay leaf, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook,
covered, stirring occasionally, until the onions are very soft and caramelized, 40-60 minutes. Remove the bay leaf, set aside. (The mixture can be held in the refrigerator, in an airtight container, for 1-2 days.)
For the crust: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll out one sheet of the puff pastry to a 10×14 inch rectangle. Trim 1/2 inch wide strips from each side of the puff pastry and set aside. Brush a little of the egg wash around the edges of the pastry, and place the reserved strips on the egg-washed area to make a raised border. Prick the base of the dough all over with the tines of a fork. Brush the egg wash over the raised borders and over the center of the pastry. Repeat with other pastry. Chill the dough in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Bake the pastry until it is golden and puffy, 10-15 minutes. Remove from the oven.
Finish the pissladiere: Scatter an equal amount of the caramelized onions on each tart. Top with the oven-dried tomatoes, olives, and sprigs of thyme. Return to the oven and heat until the onions are warm.