By Joe Dizney
“True happiness is … to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future.” ~Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger)
In Japan, the cherry blossom is a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life often associated with Buddhism and embodied in the classical idea of mono no aware, literally “the awareness of things.” It is a spiritual acknowledgement of the transience of the world, at once a gentle celebration and mourning of the passage of time.
The fragile beauty and impermanence of the flowers heralds the onset of spring and a new beginning while reminding us of our mortality and the eternal cycles of life, the wheels of destiny and karma.
The tomato, a New World native, is a horticultural vine belonging to the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which includes many important culinary staples, spices and medicinal plants — as well as some highly toxic variants. Botanically a fruit, and specifically a berry, tomatoes are universally considered and used as vegetables.
Commercially, tomatoes are big business and as such are generally identified by those agricultural abominations known as “supermarket tomatoes” — perfectly round, perfectly red, perfectly hard (when they’re not perfectly mealy), perfectly tasteless and available year-round.
But real tomatoes, vine-ripened tomatoes worth celebrating, are just as seasonal, transient, ephemeral and worthy of celebration as the cherry blossom.
Meaty, flavorful tomatoes have very specific needs—warmth (never below 55 degrees), long days with lots of sunlight and not too much water. In other words, high summer, and with the autumnal equinox upon us I propose that we pause and enjoy them in their last flush while we can.
This tart celebrates the cherry tomato, a cross between wild currant-types and the domesticated garden variety. They can range in size from berries to golf balls and in shape from spherical to oblong (so-called “grape” tomatoes). They may be red, yellow (the yellow cherry tomato was one of the first tomatoes cultivated in 16th-century Europe), green or even “black” (a deep purple or chocolate brown).
And, like ripe berries, these cherries can be undeniably sweet, making for an almost dessert-like tart, an effect countered here by the inclusion of Dijon mustard and caramelized shallots.
The basil vinaigrette also accentuates the savory nature in addition to glorifying a common culinary pairing and equally delicate seasonal ingredient. (The basil vinaigrette is also an excellent dressing for other late-season vegetables, fish or meat and will keep for up to a week refrigerated, though it’s best served at room temperature.)
If you’re not in a pastry-making mood, a perfectly acceptable variation on this recipe uses commercially available frozen puff pastry and a technique borrowed from the classic French Tarte Tatin:
In a 10-inch ovenproof skillet, caramelize the onions as per the recipe. When done, remove from heat, add cherry tomatoes to the skillet and stir to combine. Cut a pastry disc slightly larger than the skillet from one slightly defrosted sheet of the puff pastry and place it on top of the skillet mixture, tucking the edges down around the ingredients. Cut several small slits/vents in the top of the pastry and bake in a 425-degree oven for about 30 minutes until the crust is puffed and golden brown. Allow to cool slightly and when manageable invert the pan onto a serving plate. Serve warm splashed with the vinaigrette.
To everything there is a season.
Cherry Tomato Tart with Caramelized Shallots and Basil Vinaigrette
For the tart shell:
1½ cups all-purpose flour
7 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cubed
½ cup cold heavy cream
For the vinaigrette:
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1½ tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon water
1 small shallot peeled and roughly chopped
2 cups fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped and loosely packed
Salt and pepper (to taste)
For the filling:
4 tablespoons butter
6 large shallots, peeled and sliced thin
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon sugar
Juice of one lemon
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 pints cherry and/or grape tomatoes (multi-colored is good)
For the tart shell: In a food processor, pulse the flour and butter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add cream and pulse until the dough nearly comes together. Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead a few times. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or overnight.
While the dough rests, prepare the vinaigrette: Process all ingredients for the vinaigrette in a blender on high speed, 15 to 30 seconds until smooth. Season with salt and pepper reserve.
When ready to bake, butter a 10-inch fluted tart pan (with removable bottom). Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On a floured surface, roll dough out to a 14-inch round. Press the round into the tart pan, trim off excess and crimp edges into the pan with your fingers. Chill the composed pan and dough in the freezer for about 15 minutes.
Line the chilled crust foil and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Blind bake for about 25 minutes, turning pan about halfway through. Remove foil and bake for another 5 to 10 minutes until the bottom begins to barely color. When done, cool on a wire rack for an hour while you prepare the filling.
For the filling: Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add sliced shallots and thyme; sprinkle with sugar. Cook, stirring, until shallots begin to caramelize (about 15 min.). Add lemon juice and cook until liquid evaporates. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside and allow to cool.
When tart shell is cool, carefully spread Dijon mustard on the bottom. Evenly spread the caramelized shallots over the mustard. Top with cherry tomatoes packed tight enough to fill the shell in one layer. Return filled tart to 350-degree oven and bake for one hour, checking and turning pan every 15 minutes or so. Bake for up to another half-hour, checking more often for as long as it takes for tart shell to brown evenly and tomatoes to blister.
When done, allow to cool for about 30 minutes. Remove from pan to serving plate. Before serving drizzle with basil vinaigrette and serve warm.