We drove through the pine barrens on the way to and from Cape May. There are a lot of religious radio stations down that way, and signs along the road, and trucks with religious messages painted on them. In keeping with the burnt and barren landscape, the messages are all fairly dire and doom-filled. We were driving back in the lightning-lit gloaming of one of the longest days of the year, and I saw a sign that said, “God still talks to us.” And then we passed a darkened field under a sky cut across by strange horizontal lightning, and the field was filled with the slow glow of lightning bugs. I’m not very religious, in any traditional sense of the word, but it occurred to me at that sleepy moment that if God talked to us it would be through fireflies. Not that they’d communicate a message in some sort of coded pattern, but that God could say, “See? Lightning bugs.” And that would be that. This is the time of year for fireflies. The fireflyening. We were talking about them last night, sitting in our dusky garden, the boys reaching up from their seats and catching fireflies, which is really just letting them land on your hand for a moment. Or maybe them letting you feel their nearly imperceptible weight as a kind of blessing. We were imagining how they make themselves glow. Do they screw up their little faces and clench their little fists with the effort of lighting up their little butts? I was thinking of that phrase from It’s a Wonderful Life, “She lights up like a firefly whenever you’re around.”
Surely one of the nicest moments in life is when somebody is glad to see you. There are a gazillion people in the world, and when one of them has a face that brightens at the sight of you, it’s a gift. When somebody wags their tail when they see you, it makes you happy. This is why babies are nice. You might only be away from them for a few hours, but when you come back to them, although they don’t tell you in words, they let you know that you are their link to the universe, and they feel a little lost without you. Older children, however, are a little different. You could be gone for weeks, lost in a desert, fighting for your life, and when you walk into a room they would look up from the couch and say, “Mom! What do we have for a snack? I’m thirsty! Why don’t we have anything good to drink?” I remember many years ago I was talking to my dad, and without looking he knew David had walked into the room behind him, because, he said, my face never lit up that way for anyone else. I still feel that way! Yesterday when I came home from work, David seemed really glad to see me, and instead of appreciating that moment and letting myself feel happy, I let loose with a long stream of curses because I’d had such a rotten day at work. I brought everybody around me down into my tightly knotted coil of crankiness. Damn!
Well, one of the reasons I was cranky, is that I’d bought some new tart pans in Cape May, and I really wanted to be home making tarts! Silly, I know. In the end I did get to make this tart, and we sat outside and ate it, and then we built a fire and watched the sparks float up into the night and talked about fireflies. The tart has a white pepper walnut crust (I bought white peppercorns in Cape May, too!), which is a nice grounding, savory container for all the summery insides. In a garlicky basil custard, we have a little bit of fennel, some fresh tomatoes, and some thinly sliced zucchini that has been browned in olive oil. Simple!
Here’s Nina Simone’s Jellyroll, because it’s one of the best songs ever, and she says, “you could wrap me up in black, and still I shine and glow!”
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup walnuts – ground
1/2 t salt
1/2 t white pepper
6 oz butter – frozen
Combine the flour, walnuts, salt and pepper. Make a well in the center and grate in the frozen butter. Using a fork, mix everything till it resembles rough crumbs. Add enough ice water to pull everything into a ball. Knead for half a minute, then wrap in foil or plastic and chill for at least half an hour.
When you’re ready to bake the tart, butter and flour your tart pan. Roll out the dough to be about 1/4 inch thick and press it into the pan. (If you have extra, this dough makes great Isaac crackers!)
Pre-bake for about ten minutes (at 425) till it loses that shiny look.
1/2 a large zucchini, cut into eight-inch slices.
3 smallish tomatoes, tops cut off, seeds & juices squeezed out, cut into 1/4 inch slices
about 1/2 cup thinly sliced fennel (one tiny one, for me, but I haven’t seen too many quite this small!)
1 cup grated mozzarella
1 1/2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
1 garlic scape or one clove minced garlic
1/3 cup milk
salt and plenty of pepper
Warm some olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Arrange the zucchini slices in a single layer. Cook on one side till they’re mottled with brown spots. Turn and cook on the other. It should just take a few minutes – you still want them to be bright and have a little crunch. Set on a paper towel.
Put the garlic scape or garlic in the olive oil and fry lightly till it’s just brown. Put that in a blender with the basil.
Put the fennel in the pan with the same oil, and lightly fry till translucent and just starting to brown. Set that aside.
Add the milk, eggs, salt and pepper to the blender, and blend till fairly smooth.
Sprinkle the cheese evenly in the tart shell. Spread the fennel evenly over that. Pour the basil/egg mixture over that. Arrange the zucchini and tomato slices prettily over everything.
Bake (at 425) until the tart is puffed and starting to brown – about half an hour.
Let it cool a few minutes, and then take it out of the tart pan and serve.
Pine barrens? As in the Sopranos ep of that name? Wow.
Possibly – I’ve never seen the Sopranos! Not even a minute of the show!
I love this post! It’s yet another publication-worthy story. The tart looks most delicious and I love the tart pan, and also your philosophy on pastry crust.
I also wanted to tell you and Isaac thank you for getting back to me on my question about Thimble Man.
That tart sounds wonderful! I love the walnuts in the crust. And of course it’s a perfect way to stuff oneself with all the perfect summer veg.
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