OK, you’ve seen her beautiful home, and you’ve swooned over the vibrant green hills that surround her bountiful little farm in Gippsland. But today we’re finally giving Tamsin Carvan of Tamsin’s Table a chance to share her great passion with us first hand! This month, Tamsin will share with us four seasonal recipes from her kitchen. At heart, Tamsin’s Table is about getting back to the simple things – growing and harvesting with the seasons, being frugal and creative with food, and sharing ridiculousy tasty meals with loved ones. It’s going to be a very inspiring month!
For the last eleven years I have lived in a small house on a windy hilltop in Poowong East, ninety minutes east of Melbourne, surrounded by 113 acres of steep but fertile land. I ended up here by a strange and circuitous route, all because, some 15 years ago now, I asked myself a question that I committed to taking seriously – what would it take to eat the way I really want to eat? Thinking through the answer prompted a whole series of decisions that in hindsight seem nuts, but somehow at the time made perfect sense… such as quitting my well paid job in Sydney, moving interstate (twice) and buying this run down and difficult farm when I had never done a day’s farming in my life.
But now here I am, and I’m very glad that the younger me was crazy enough to do all that. Because now we do eat exactly how we want – from the garden, with the seasons, with no chemicals, by our own hands and hard work, with animals living as they are meant to live. And as far cooking goes, it was the best thing I could ever have done. I have learned what broccoli and asparagus taste like when they have just been picked, that fresh potatoes never need to be peeled, and new season parsnips don’t need to be cored. I’ve learned that hidden away in the need to practice thriftiness and frugality is creativity, and I would go so far as to say joy in cooking, and in eating. And I’ve learned that when you have such beautiful ingredients to work with, the less you do to them the better.
I hope you enjoy these simple but delicious dishes that are all about getting food back to where it seems happiest – on a big platter, in the middle of a shared table, surrounded by people who have come together to celebrate good company, good food well grown, good conversation, and a good laugh.
If you made me choose (but please don’t) these tarts would be right up there as one of my most favourite things to eat – the combination of leek, thyme and plenty of butter is so simple, yet utterly delicious. The secret to their success is long, slow cooking of the leeks (I often leave them for hours, cooking almost imperceptibly on the side of the wood stove) and making sure that when you fill the pastry shells with the custard, that the pastry is hot (otherwise you will end up with the dreaded soggy bottom).
Leeks are easy to grow in the garden and are very low maintenance – if you start with one of the heirloom bulbing varieties (that send up new leek-lets from the base of older plants that can then be separated and replanted) you will have a perpetual supply of the best, most tender, finger thin leeks to use for these tarts, braise in butter or combine with walnuts and beetroot for an unusual and refreshing summer salad. Although at first glance these might seem complicated, once you’re comfortable with making the pastry and custard they are really quite simple, and perfect for lunches and dinner parties, as you can make the pastry, the infused milk and the slow cooked leeks ahead of time, and then casually assemble the components and bake at the last minute, glass of wine in hand!
For the tart filling
- 6 young and tender leeks, trimmed and washed, any tough outer leaves removed and cut into long thin strips (you need to end up with a generous cup of chopped leeks)
- 60g of butter
- One brown onion halved
- 200ml of unthickened cream (pouring or whipping cream)
- A bay leaf
- 1 cup and a quarter of milk
- A slug of extra virgin olive oil
- Two sprigs of thyme plus six sprigs extra to decorate the tarts
- 6 eggs
For the pastry
- 180g of cubed cold unsalted butter
- 240g plain flour
- 1tbs of water
- a pinch of salt
For the tart filling
In a shallow, wide, heavy bottomed pan, very gently sweat the leeks and two sprigs of thyme in the butter and olive oil with a decent pinch of sea salt, taking care not to let the leeks brown. Start this well ahead of time so you don’t have to rush them.
Combine the milk and cream in a separate saucepan and add the halved onion and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer for a few minutes, then remove from the heat, season, and set aside to infuse.
Meanwhile make and blind bake your tart cases using the flaky pastry recipe below.
When the tart shells are almost ready, lightly whisk the eggs. Reheat the milk/cream to just below boiling then strain into to the egg mixture, stirring as you do. Return the egg / milk mixture to the heat and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the custard thickens slightly. Strain back into a clean bowl and check seasoning. Ladle the custard into the hot tart shells, into which the a few spoonfuls of the leek mixture and a sprig of thyme have been artfully, or otherwise, placed. Bake at 175 degrees or so until just set.
To remove the tarts from the tins, let cool out of the oven for five or so minutes. Then, working one tart at a time, place a tart in its tin so that it is standing, centred, over an egg cup or other small cup and gently ease the outside of the tart tin down to expose the edges of the pastry shell. Now use a spatula to carefully slide between the pastry case and the tin bottom and lift the tart onto your serving plate. Repeat with remaining tarts.
For the flaky pastry
This is Damien Pignolet’s pate brisee from his French cookbook. It is the best and most reliable shortcrust pastry I have ever used, and works beautifully for these tarts.
For a simple, flaky shortcrust pastry, toss 180g of cubed cold unsalted butter and with 240g plain flour, a tablespoon or so of water and a pinch of salt. (Good quality butter is important—I recommend using Girgar or Harmonie unsalted butter or similar). Using the heel of your hand, push down onto the flour and butter mix and push your hand away from you through the butter mix, ‘smearing’ the butter as you do so. How much water you’ll need will vary depending on the flour you’re using – add a little more if you are having trouble bringing it together.
Gather the mixture back together and repeat until the dough comes together (squeeze a handful of the mixture—if it holds its shape you are done. It is better to under-mix than over-mix, don’t worry if flour and bits of butter are still visible). Gather into a flattened disc, wrap in clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes. This resting phase is vital to help prevent shrinkage.
When rested, roll the dough out between two sheets of baking paper until it is 2 or 3 mm thick. Grease six, loose bottomed, 10 cm tart tins with fluted sides (although you don’t strictly need to grease tart tins when using a buttery pastry, I always do when using the small sized tin. Just. In. Case). Place one of the tart tins on the rolled out pastry and cut a circle of pastry out around it that is about 1 cm bigger in diameter than the tin itself. Gently lift the pastry circle and press into the tin, doubling the excess over at the edge to make a slightly thicker crust. Make sure that the edges stick up a little higher than the tin to account for shrinkage when baked. Don’t be discouraged if you end up with holes here and there during this process– there’s no shame in patching! Just make sure that after patching there are no tears, gaps, holes or places where the pastry is excessively thin, otherwise the custard is more likely to leak out.
Once all the tart tins are filled with pastry, cut squares of alfoil big enough to line the pastry shells and cover the edges. Fill with rice right to the top of the tarts, place on a baking sheet and freeze for at least an hour (I often make the pastry the day before and then freeze it overnight).
Preheat the oven to 175 degrees Celsius and place the frozen tart shells (still on the baking sheet) into the oven on the top shelf. After about 15 minutes, check to see if the walls of the pastry are set and if so, carefully remove the alfoil and the rice. Check if there are spots where the pastry has shrunk too far down the walls of the tart tins or if holes or cracks have developed—in these areas don’t be afraid to massage the half cooked dough so that the pastry extends back up to the top of the tin / the holes are closed back up. Place the tart shells back into the oven and continue cooking until light golden in colour.
Your pastry cases are now ‘blind baked’ and ready to fill – see method above.