Sunday, 23 March 2014

Laura Esquivel | Caramelised Onion, Red Pepper and Goat's Cheese Tart

There is a unique relationship between literature and film, a tentative symbiosis between the written word and the cinematic image that allows the latter to adapt, appropriate or negotiate the former. Many films are based on novels, short stories and plays but what determines the dynamic of this relationship is a different matter. Sometimes the film rises to the challenge of the book: Coppola's Apocalypse Now is as brilliant as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Sometimes, it's a disastrous affair: think of the adaptation of The Scarlet Letter or of Vanity Fair. And then there are times when the film surpasses its literary origin, so much so that we have no idea it's even based on a book, as with J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear or Hitchcock's Psycho.

Writers will often object to the cinematic treatment of their book, mainly because they feel that the integrity of the book has been compromised, that the film is not 'true' to the ideas and ideals of their story. The sequel to Winston Groom's Forrest Gump famously begins with the line 'Don’t never let nobody make a movie of your life’s story' although 'Whether they get it right or wrong, it don't matter'. This latter, I think, is a valid point. Reading a book or adapting it for the big screen is a perverse and promiscuous act in which texts are ravished and authorial intentions are made irrelevant. Rather than closely compare the film to the book and judge it on its degree of fidelity, one should look at it as a medium in its own right and appreciate it on its own merit.

I have seen and loved Alfonso Arau's film Like Water For Chocolate but I haven't read the book; perhaps one more title to add to my ever growing list of Must-Read-Before-I-Die books. The film is in the style of magical realism, blending food, passion, the mundane and the magical with muted, matter-of-fact simplicity. The following is from the first chapter of the book, entitled 'January', which begins with a recipe that requires chopping onion:
The trouble with crying over an onion is that once the chopping gets you started and the tears begin to well up, the next thing you know you just can't stop. I don't know whether that's ever happened to you, but I have to confess it's happened to me, many times. Mama used to say it was because I was especially sensitive to onions, like my great-aunt, Tita.
     Tita was so sensitive to onions, any time they were being chopped, they say she would just cry and cry; when she was still in my great-grandmother’s belly her sobs were so loud that even Nacha, our cook, who was half-deaf, could hear them easily. Once her wailing got so violent that it brought on an early labor. And before my great-grandmother could let out a word or even a whimper, Tita made her entrance into this world, prematurely, right there on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves, and cilantro, steamed milk, garlic, and, of course, onion. Tita had no need for the usual slap on the bottom, because she was already crying as she emerged; maybe that was because she knew then that it would be her lot in life to be denied marriage.
Above: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Still Life with Onions

The film  interweaves themes of self-growth, the banality of evil and female emancipation with the reticence of life in the kitchen. Food permeates the entire story, becoming infused with emotion and it turn transforming life into a voluptuous, ardently fragrant and utterly sensual experience.
For Tita the joy of living was wrapped up in the delights of food. It wasn't easy for a person whose knowledge of life was based on the kitchen to comprehend the outside world. That world was an endless expanse that began at the door between the kitchen and the rest of the house, whereas everything on the kitchen side of that door,on through the door leading to the patio and the kitchen and herb gardens was completely hers - it was Tita's realm.
Laura Esquivel, Like Water For Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments,
with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies

~ Caramelised Onion, Red Pepper and Goat's Cheese Tart ~

I love tarts, both sweet and savoury, and although my friend SA insists that the pastry simply serves the purpose of a shell destined to hold a delicate filling and can therefore be discarded once it has fulfilled its destiny, I think otherwise. For me, what makes or breaks a tart is a balancing act between crust and filling. This tart encapsulates all the Mediterranean influences in my cooking, from the sweet caramelised onions and feisty red pepper to the crumbly goat's cheese and fragrant herbs.

Serves 6-8

1 quantity shortcrust pastry (for a 36cm x 12cm rectangular flan tin)

4-5 medium onions, peeled and sliced
4 tsp olive oil and butter, mixed
1 red bell pepper
125 g goat's cheese
30 g feta cheese
2 medium eggs
230 ml double cream
1 tsp mixed herbs
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
 salt and pepper

Prepare the shortcrust pastry according to directions in the recipe here.

Shape the dough into a flat rectangle, wrap in cling-film and chill in the fridge ideally for a couple of hours or at least for 30 minutes.

When the pastry has chilled sufficiently, take it out of the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature for about 5-8 minutes. Roll it out on a lightly floured surface.  If it starts getting sticky, sprinkle more flour on the surface and the rolling pin. Transfer the pastry into a lightly greased 36cm x 12cm rectangular fluted, loose-bottom flan tin. Prick the base with a fork, cover with clingfilm and chill for about an hour.

Half an hour before taking the pastry out of the fridge, heat the oven to 185 C.

Remove the pastry from the fridge, cover the sides with foil and place a large piece of crinkled baking parchment on top. Fill this with baking beans and bake in the middle of the oven for 20 minutes. Remove the foil, baking paper and beans, patch any cracks with left-over pastry and glaze with egg yolk beaten with a little water or milk. Bake for another 10 minutes or so until dry and lightly golden.

Prepare the caramelised onions: In a wide, thick-bottomed pan heat a mixture of olive oil and butter (about 2 1/2 tbsp). Add the onion slices and stir to coat them with the oil. Spread the onions out evenly over the pan and cook over low heat until softened but not browned (about 10-15 minutes), stirring occasionally

After the onions have become translucent, add a pinch of sugar to start the caramelisation process. If you find the onions are drying out or burning, you can add a little more olive oil or butter. Cook the onions stirring occasionally, until they are sticky and have turned dark brown. This will take another 30-45 minutes. At the end of the cooking process, add the balsamic vinegar for depth of flavour and season to taste. Remove from the heat and allow to cool at room temperature.

Prepare the red pepper: While the onions are caramelising, turn on the grill to medium high. De-seed and cut the pepper in big pieces. Place under the grill with the skin facing up and cook until softened and the skin starts to blacken. Remove from the heat, allow to cool slightly and carefully peel the skin off. Cut the flesh in thin stripes and put aside.

Assemble the tart: Increase oven temperature to 190 C.

Arrange the onions and pepper slices over the base of the pastry case and scatter the crumbled goat's and feta cheese. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and cream together. Add the seasoning, grated nutmeg and mixed herbs and stir to blend. Carefully pour the mixture over the onions, pepper and cheese. You could also sprinkle a tablespoon of Gruyère cheese on top, if you like.

Bake in the middle of the oven for 35-45 minutes until set and golden brown. Serve warm or lukewarm with a green salad.

1 comment:

  1. I did read Like Water For Chocolate, although I haven't seen the movie. I loved how she wove food into every chapter. Your tart is gorgeous, and worthy of the book!