Call Suzanne Goin the vegetable whisperer. The executive chef of Lucques in West Hollywood claims to walk through farmers' markets, past rows of arugula and bins of artichokes, divining information that is beyond the ears of mere mortals. Each vegetable, she explains, speaks to her, telling her what it wants her to do with it. It would be tempting to dismiss Goin as just another eccentric chef, if it weren't for the sublime and utterly original things she coaxes out of such chatty produce.
Take cipollini onions, her most recent experience in vegetable voodoo. Most chefs would be content to toss them in olive oil and roast them to bring out their natural sweetness. But on a recent visit to the Santa Monica farmers' market, Goin encountered a basket of the flying saucer-shaped onions from Thogmartin Farm, in Colton, that demanded something far greater of her. She was haunted by them until she created a cipollini and Bleu de Gex tart. Nestled in buttery pastry, which is so delicate that any chef who has bragged about the crumb of his crust should hang his head in shame, is a smooth and rich custard dotted with herb-roasted cipollini and layered with the blue cheese. But why not ordinary onions? Or Vidalia, for that matter?
"Nothing came to me when I saw them," she says with a laugh. "Cipollini have a depth of flavor that can hold up to herbs and assertive cheeses." Hence, the tart. She also admires the onion's shape, resembling Art Nouveau crenulations, after it is quartered and roasted.
For the home cook, Goin offers some advice to help get that luxe Lucques look: "It's important when trimming the roots from the onions not to remove too much, otherwise they'll fall apart when roasting." She's very particular, too, about making sure the onions peek though the layer of Bleu de Gex just so.
If Goin has this kind of rapport with vegetables, imagine the conversations she must be having with fruit. Maybe that's why her oven-roasted grapes, which accompany the tart, are so good.
Cipollini and Bleu de Gex Tart
by Suzanne Goin of Lucques
Serves 8 to 10
1 1/2 pounds cipollini onions, peeled and quartered
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup loosely packed rosemary leaves
1 tablespoon sliced sage leaves
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
6 ounces cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons ice water
1/2 cup whole-milk ricotta, drained if wet
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup creme fraiche
Pinch of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large egg
1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
Pinch of kosher salt
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon creme fraiche
1/2 pound Bleu de Gex, rind removed and cut into 1/4-inch slices (Stilton or Bleu d'Auvergne may be substituted)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, toss together the onions, olive oil, rosemary, sage, thyme and salt and pepper. Spread the mixture in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast until the onions are soft and begin to color but still hold their shape, about 45 minutes. Remove the pan to a rack.
To make the pastry, place the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal, about 13 to 15 one-second pulses. With the machine running, add the ice water and process just until the dough starts to come together. Don't over-mix. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and form into a disc with your hands. Roll out the dough into a 13-inch circle, then ease it into a 10-inch tart pan, fitting it snugly against the sides and bottom, and trim the excess. Prick the bottom of the tart with a fork and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
To make the filling, whisk the ricotta, egg yolk and olive oil in a small bowl until smooth. Stir in the creme fraiche and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
For the royale, whisk the egg, flour and salt in a small bowl. Heat the cream and milk in a small saucepan until hot but not boiling, then slowly add it to the egg-flour mixture, whisking until smooth. Stir in the creme fraiche. Set aside.
Raise the oven temperature to 375 degrees. Place the rack on the bottom third of the oven. Spread the filling evenly in the tart shell. Scatter 3/4 of the onions in the tart shell and drizzle with the royale. Arrange the slices of cheese on top. Dot with the remaining onions.
Bake the tart for 30 minutes, rotating halfway after 15 minutes. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 15 more minutes. For a deep golden brown crust, increase the heat to 400 degrees, leave the tart covered and bake for 10 to 15 more minutes. Cool on a rack. Serve warm.
Bleu d'Auvergne and Bleu de Gex are available through Cowgirl Creamery, (866) 433-7834 or www.cowgirlcreamery.com. Bleu d'Auvergne is available through Say Cheese, Silver Lake, (323) 665-0545.
David Leite last wrote for the magazine about beef daube.