The Tripartite Tri-Pie-Tart

Garden­ers, writers and artists have always under­stood the value of the num­ber three: less bor­ingly sym­met­rical than two, more com­plex than one. Where would Flaubert, Chek­hov or Con­stance Spry be without it? And scriptwriter Steven Mof­fat, whom I admire hugely, clearly loves it; he named one of his Doc­tor Who epis­odes ‘The Power of Three’ and one of his Sher­lock Holmes epis­odes ‘The Sign of Three’.

I’ve been afflic­ted by insom­nia again this week. Count­ing the hours until morn­ing is, apart from being exhaust­ing, extremely bor­ing. At times like these, the BBC World Ser­vice and Radio 4 are vital com­pan­ions. But when I even­tu­ally fall asleep and wake again, after what feels like only minutes, I find I’ve acquired very odd scraps of inform­a­tion from half-heard radio pro­grammes. (I woke recently with the crazy idea that there was a dead cow out­side, only to dis­cover that it wasn’t the leg­acy of a weird middle-of-the-night radio drama, but was in fact true. But that’s a story I’ll tell another time.)

One morn­ing this week I awoke with a com­pletely unfa­mil­iar word rack­et­ing around my brain. All I can remem­ber is hav­ing the radio on for most of the night and hear­ing someone, some­where say­ing ‘sizzi-jee’ and spelling it out very care­fully — ‘s-y-z-y-g-y’ — just as I finally dozed off. A three-syllable word com­pletely lack­ing in vow­els is worth look­ing up in the dic­tion­ary, if only for its Scrabble potential.

  • Syzygy: a straight-line con­fig­ur­a­tion of three celes­tial bod­ies, such as the Sun, Earth and Moon, in a grav­it­a­tional system.

And, as so often, a frag­ment­ary idea, in this case about three celes­tial bod­ies, led me towards some­thing to cook. I’ve wanted to write about my tri­part­ite tri-pie-tart for a while, mainly because the name makes me laugh. The tri­part­ite tri-pie-tart is a pie that I thought-up dur­ing another bout of insom­nia. But I had to wait until the Eng­lish asparagus sea­son before I could make it. And now, of course, I can.

The tri-pie-tart is a three-part pie that com­bines my son’s, my daughter’s and my favour­ite tart ingredi­ents. My son prefers asparagus, my daugh­ter likes leeks and I love spin­ach. So this is the tri-pie-tart that com­bines them all. And, as with syzygy, if you line up three celes­tial ingredi­ents — in this case, asparagus, spin­ach and leeks — you’ll find there’s a grav­it­a­tional pull towards the kit­chen table.

THE TRIPARTITE TRI-PIE-TART

For the pastry:

  • 225g plain flour
  • 125g but­ter
  • 2 eggs yolks
  • 25cm loose-bottomed pie tin

Wrestle with it by hand if you prefer, but I use a mixer. Cut the cold but­ter into cubes and com­bine with the flour and a pinch of salt. Mix until you have a dry, crumbly tex­ture. Add three table­spoons of cold water to the egg yolks and whisk with a fork until com­bined. Pour half the egg mix­ture into the flour and con­tinue to add until the pastry forms a ball. Try to do this as quickly as pos­sible and don’t feel the need to use all of the eggs, if it doesn’t need it. Remove the ball, wrap in cling-film, flat­ten it down with the palm of your hand (it’s easier to roll later if it doesn’t emerge from the fridge as a massive, chilly globe) and place in the fridge for at least an hour. By the way, I’ve tried rolling pastry out straight­away, without rest­ing it, just to see what hap­pens. I ended up with a soft, string-vest of a thing that would no-more hold a pie filling than a sieve would. So now you know.

After at least an hour, roll the pastry out thinly. This is a nifty tip, if you dread man-handling your pastry into the tin. Roll it out onto the same piece of cling-film you used to wrap it in. That way, you won’t have to flour the sur­face on which you roll it which only adds a whole load of extra flour to the pastry which you don’t need or want. The added bene­fit of the cling-film method is that you can then pick up the cling-film, with its pastry disc attached and then just turn it upside down into the pie tin. None of that wrap­ping it round the rolling-pin and then unrolling it over the tin, which always sounds so much easier than it really is. Press the pastry into the edges of the tin and care­fully peel away the cling-film.

Place a circle of tin-foil over the pastry in the tin, fill with bak­ing beans, and bake in the oven at 200 degrees C for ten minutes. Remove the beans and foil and bake for a fur­ther seven minutes until the pastry case is golden in col­our and dry in tex­ture. If, when it emerges, there are any cracks, paint a little beaten egg over the cracks while the pastry is still hot and it will seal them. Lower the oven tem­per­at­ure to 140 degrees C.

FOR THE FILLING:

  • 200g spin­ach
  • 2 leeks
  • 250g slim-ish asparagus
  • 2 eggs and an extra 3 yolks
  • 125g Mas­car­pone
  • 150ml double cream
  • 125g Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated. It doesn’t need to be that fine — you’re not aim­ing for cheese dust here

Cut the leeks finely, dis­card­ing the tougher dark green ends. Cook gently in a little but­ter for five minutes or so, until soft but not browned. Tip into a bowl, and, using the same pan, wilt the spin­ach briefly, adding a little more but­ter if neces­sary. Put the spin­ach in a second bowl. Finally, blanch the asparagus so that it is just, only just, cooked. Remove from the pan and run cold water over the asparagus to stop it cook­ing. All three of your celes­tial ingredi­ents should still be a bright green hue, rather than sid­ling off into the khaki or olive-green end of the paintbox.

Mix together the mas­car­pone, cream and eggs, whisk­ing in plenty of air. Spoon a quarter of the mix­ture over the tart base and spread it around. Layer on a quarter of the grated parmesan, fol­lowed by all the spin­ach, another layer of eggs and cream, a second layer of cheese, all the leeks, a third layer of eggs and cream, a third layer of cheese, the asparagus in a sun-burst effect and a final layer of eggs and cream. Bake in the oven, which should now be at 140 degrees C, for around twenty-five minutes, until the tri-pie-tart is a rich golden brown. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with extra Parmesan and a fine trickle of olive oil to give it some shine. Cast over some chive flowers if you like and eat the tri-pie-tart hot,cold or luke-warm. The syzygy is in the eating.

Spinach and Sorrel Soup, The Sonnet

Soup is one of the best foods ever inven­ted, so why are most of the ref­er­ences to it in lit­er­at­ure unashamedly dis­mal? Soup is usu­ally a meta­phor for hard times, dour land­ladies and dubi­ous chefs. The 20th cen­tury Amer­ican author Mar­garet Hal­sey cap­tured the ‘sad soup genre’ per­fectly when she said that the broth she was served ‘tasted as if it had been drained out of the umbrella stand.’

So here comes the fight­back. This spin­ach and sor­rel soup should have a son­net writ­ten about it. Or a novel in which the prot­ag­on­ist is restored to good health and good for­tune after just one spoon­ful. It’s the rich, deep, full-throttle green of a vin­tage racing car and gives instant vigour and zip to any­one who so much as looks at it. 

Sor­rel is a beau­ti­ful herb, espe­cially this red-veined vari­ety, but it’s often hard to find in the shops. I have a friend who keeps an allot­ment purely so she can main­tain her sor­rel sup­plies. But this week I spot­ted an entire tray of pot­ted sor­rel in my local shop, with reduced price stick­ers attached. So I res­cued the lot.

You may know by now that I love pic­nics and long walks. My mum used to put a flask of soup in one pocket of her coat and hot cheese, tomato and mus­tard rolls in the other and we would set off. Spin­ach and sor­rel soup would be the per­fect walk­ing companion. Make it, eat it and start writ­ing in rhym­ing couplets.

Spin­ach and Sor­rel Soup

Serves 4

1 floury potato, chopped into smallish, even-sized chunks

I medium onion, cut into sim­ilar sized pieces

1 clove gar­lic, sliced

1 knob butter

500ml veget­able stock

400g fresh spin­ach, coarsely chopped

40 sor­rel leaves — the sor­rel gives a del­ic­ate lemon back­ground fla­vour, but if you can’t find sor­rel, add an extra 50g or so of spin­ach and add a little grated lemon zest

Hand­ful of micro herbs such as cori­ander and red amar­anth to sprinkle over at the end — or just some chopped chives

Spoon­ful of cream (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the but­ter in a pan and cook the onion, gar­lic and potato together gently for five minutes or so, without col­our­ing them. Add the veget­able stock and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to a gentle sim­mer for around 15 minutes until the potato is soft. 

Add 200g of the spin­ach and all the sor­rel leaves, sea­son with salt and pep­per and cook for a fur­ther five minutes. The sor­rel leaves give a del­ic­ate lemon back­ground fla­vour, but if you can’t find sor­rel, just add an extra 50g or so of spin­ach instead and a little grated lemon zest. Take the pan off the heat and add the remain­ing uncooked spin­ach. Blend imme­di­ately and adjust the season­ing. Serve with a drizzle of cream, if using, and a sprink­ling of herbs. Adding half the spin­ach at the end keeps the mag­ni­fi­cent deep emer­ald col­our of the soup. 

Spinach tart and homework

I’ve res­cued a heap of Vic­torian home­work from a Lon­don junk shop. Signed ‘John, 1848′, every sheet is lined with miser­able aph­or­isms. ‘Cau­tion is the only pro­tec­tion against impos­ing’, ‘Ven­er­ate sac­red insti­tu­tions’, ‘Nom­in­ate the just’. You get the picture.

Weirdly, hav­ing res­cued one batch of ancient home­work, I imme­di­ately found a whole heap more in my roof. I live in a 19th Cen­tury school house and like most things in this place, the roof is on its last legs. When the builder took the tiles off he found the eaves had been packed with old home­work — and it’s even more miser­able than poor old John’s.

Think­ing about the end­less scraps of paper that we throw away so freely, I star­ted to won­der about all the cook­books that go out of print each year. Per­haps, like act­ors, they say they’re ‘rest­ing.’ And yet while they ‘rest’, other far less impress­ive recipe books are doing a can-can down at the bookshop.

As a trib­ute to dis­carded cook­books every­where, and ded­ic­ated to 19th cen­tury John, here’s my ver­sion of a spin­ach and parmesan tart from one of my favour­ite recipe books of all, Quaglino’s: The Cookbook.

Spin­ach and Parmesan Tart

Serves 8

For the pastry

225g plain flour

125g slightly salted butter

2 egg yolks

For the filling

150g freshly grated Parmesan

450 g spin­ach

30g but­ter

freshly grated nutmeg

2 eggs, plus 3 extra yolks

200 ml double cream

150g Mas­car­pone cheese

Rub the flour and but­ter together with a pinch of salt. When thor­oughly mixed, whisk three table­spoons of cold water to the eggs yolks and pour into the flour. Quickly roll it together into a ball, wrap it in cling film and cool it in the fridge for an hour or so.

Pre­heat the oven to 200 degrees C. Roll out the pastry, line a loose-bottomed 25cm tart tin and line it with sil­ver paper. Tip in the bak­ing beans and bake blind for ten minutes. Remove the paper and beans and cook for a fur­ther 6 or 7 minutes until golden.

Reduce the tem­per­at­ure of the oven to 150 degrees C and pre­pare the filling. Wilt the washed spin­ach with the but­ter for a few minutes until it looks like bedraggled sea­weed but still retains its bright green col­our. Squeeze it out like a dish­cloth and then sprinkle with a little grated nutmeg.

Beat the eggs, cream and Mas­car­pone together until smooth. Then repeat the fol­low­ing for­mula twice…layer of eggs, cream and Mas­car­pone, layer of spin­ach, sprink­ling of black pep­per, hefty dose of parmesan. Fin­ish with a final dose of the eggs and cream mix­ture and a snow­drift of parmesan. Bake in the oven for around half an hour, or until golden and set. Finally, grate a little more parmesan on top and a trickle of extra vir­gin olive oil. Deli­cious with a green salad. Deli­cious with just about any­thing actu­ally. I ate it for break­fast this morn­ing, with a cup of PG tips on the side.