Taking it Nice and easy with pissaladière
This dish is originally from Nice. The city is sandwiched between Cannes and Monaco, close to the Italian border. It is not a bad place.
One of the first cookbooks I bought was called Cuisine Niçoise, written by a former mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin. I was working for Greg Malouf when oxtail niçoise was added to the menu and I was completely taken by the flavours – especially the addition of orange peel and black olives at the end of the braising process. I asked Greg where it was from, and he recommended this book.
Médecin was mayor from 1966 to 1990, at which point he fled under a cloud of corruption allegations. He was extradited from Uruguay four years later, and sent to prison. I like to think the book was written there.
Apart from the pissaladière, the other famous dishes from the town and book are niçoise salad and ratatouille. The former lives in every French bistro in the world, too often served with crappy tinned tuna. Season permitting, using superfine green beans and top-notch ingredients, one can understand its fame. The rest of the time, one is resigned to its infamy.
Ratatouille, a dish with its heritage in the Ottoman Empire, is now sadly confused with a film about a rat. Again, this dish is often got wrong. People cook the whole lot in one pot, and the individual flavour of each vegetable can be lost. I like to cook the eggplant and zucchini separately to the tomato, then fold the ingredients together.
Of the three famous Nice dishes, though, pissaladière is the one that has survived mistreatment. It remains a go-to in my house. In fact, most things with copious amounts of anchovies are. Traditionally, it is made on a yeast-based dough, similar to focaccia. I use a relatively short, flaky pastry – I find it a little bit more indulgent. It also heightens the sweetness of the onions.
For me, one of the key elements is cooking the onions as gently and slowly as possible. This should take 20 to 30 minutes. Once wilted, I put a lid on the pan and sweat them. This is the best way to guarantee they won’t colour. After about 10 minutes, I take off the lid and cook out any excess liquid. This can be done one or two days in advance, which will help speed the process.
Sometimes, towards the end of cooking onions like this, I will add a dash of sugar and white wine vinegar to make a jam. It works perfectly alongside pork.
In both recipes, a sprig of thyme thrown in towards the end is a welcome addition.
In Nice, the base is rolled out into a large rectangle and spread with onions, on top of which the anchovies are arranged in a lattice. I prefer to lay the anchovies out side by side. This is purely for aesthetic reasons. I think it looks more relaxed.
– 4 large onions, peeled
– 5 tbsp olive oil
– pinch salt
– rough puff pastry (recipe below)
– handful black olives
– 8-10 anchovy fillets (Ortiz brand are best)
Preheat your oven to 190ºC.
Halve the onions vertically. Place the onion cut-side down onto your chopping board and slice them across, very thinly, into half moons.
In a wide, heavy-based saucepan, simmer the sliced onions, olive oil and a pinch of salt over a very low heat. Stir them occasionally as they release their juices, and then more frequently as the liquid evaporates and the onions start to fry again. Don’t let them colour though – you want the onions to be melty, translucent and pale. This takes 30-40 minutes. Once the onions are cooked set them aside.
Roll the pastry out to half-a-centimetre thick and cut out a rectangle about 13 centimetres by 40 centimetres. Spread a half-centimetre-thick layer of cooled onions over the pastry, leaving a one-centimetre border all around.
If your olives are pitted, cut them in half. If they are not pitted, slice “cheeks” of olive away from each pit. Place anchovy fillets across the tart at regular intervals and place two halves or “cheeks” of olive between each anchovy.
Slide the tart onto a baking tray and bake for 20–30 minutes, until the base is well crisped.
Rough puff pastry
– 225g salted butter, chilled
– 240g flour
– 135-150ml chilled water
Divide the butter into four portions and dice each portion into one-centimetre cubes.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, one portion of butter and 135 millilitres of water. Work the dough into large crumbs using the fingertips of both hands. If the dough is dry, add the additional 15 millilitres of water.
Press the dough together firmly, wrap in cling film and chill for 15 minutes.
Roll the dough out into a rectangle and sprinkle the second portion of butter over two-thirds of the dough, leaving an empty square at one end. Fold the non-buttered third over the centre third and fold over the remaining third of the pastry. This rolling and folding is called a “turn”.
Wrap and chill the pastry for another 15 minutes before continuing with two more “turns” to use up the butter portions. Wrap with cling film and refrigerate the pastry until needed.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 4, 2016 as "Pissaladière". Subscribe here.