Recipe: Swiss Chard Torta with Marjoram and Fennel Seed
I believe there is a running theme in the life of every dedicated cook. My theme is making fairly traditional, mostly Southern Italian dishes over and over, but never making them exactly the same way twice. Especially the savory torta.
My first encounter with an Italian savory torta was in the form of a New York style calzone, which I loved from first bite, with its pully yeast crust and hot, oozing ricotta filling. Any savory pie type of preparation, either single or double crusted, can be called a torta, though there are dozens of regional names for the things. Pizza rustica, the traditional savory Easter torta, usually made with a short crust and filled with salami, prosciutto, and various cheeses and often finished with a pretty lattice top, was another early meeting I had with Italian savory pastry, but my childhood absolute favorite was the Neapolitan pizza di scarola, a double-crusted flat torta filled with escarole, olives, anchovies, and capers, a common offering at many pizza places way back then (sadly, this fabulous creation is hard to find at by-the-slice places nowadays). It was the first torta I made when I was first teaching myself Southern Italian cooking, and I was extremely proud of the result.
Liguria also makes greens-filled tortas, especially ones cooked with Swiss chard. They traditionally include raisins, pine nuts, and a touch of a hard grating cheese such as grana Padano. The crust is inevitably a quick mix of flour and good olive oil. I’ve been cooking up variations on that for decades, but, in keeping with my style, I make those a little different every time. For the past few years that’s been a matter of fooling around with different herbs and spices, both in the crust and in the filling.
Combining flavors has taught me a lot about what I call the “third taste,” which I create by mixing together two flavors I don’t often use, coming up with something new. That’s not so novel a concept, I know, but depending on what I’m blending the results can be better than expected or even completely unexpected. For this fall’s version of my chard torta, I’ve used marjoram and fennel seed, two flavors I love on their own but have never, to my recollection, blended (except, now that I think of it, with the addition of hot chili, which masked their subtlety). Marjoram, a flowery, gentler cousin to oregano, is a common herb in Ligurian cooking, not as popular as basil but certainly up there, so it was a natural. Fennel seed I often use to flavor cooked greens such as broccoli rabe or dandelions, so I added that as well. The tart cooked up with a wild edge. Combining the two flavors created a taste similar to that of nepitella, a wild mint used often in Southern Italy. In the past I’ve described its taste as a mix of basil and oregano, but somehow the marjoram and fennel seed blend hit closer for me. It also managed, with the bitter edge fennel provides, to make the Swiss chard less sweet, even with the standard addition of raisins. Very interesting. I can certainly see using this combo with pasta and broccoli, or as a flavoring for peperonata.
The key for me is not just to reach into my bag of Italian tricks but to really think about what each flavor I decide on truly tastes like. I try to meditate on that flavor. Then I pick another and do the same thing. Now I’ve got the two flavors in my head. Next I put them both in my mouth, just raw, and chomp on them a bit. That gives me a good idea of where I’ll be heading, but it’s not the entire story by any stretch. The game is to then wait and see how the combination works in a dish, how it blends with the other ingredients I’ll be adding, and how heat may alter the outcome.
Swiss Chard Torta with Marjoram and Fennel Seed
Have on hand a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. To get a more rustic look, choose one with smooth, not fluted, sides, if possible. Or use a tart ring, if you prefer.
(Serves 8 as an appetizer, or 4 as a main course served with a side salad)
For the crust:
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly toasted and finely ground
1/3 cup dry Marsala
⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
For the filling:
2 big bunches Swiss chard, thick stalks removed, leaves roughly chopped
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 shallot, minced
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly toasted
¼ cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted
¼ cup yellow raisins, soaked in a 2 tablespoons Marsala or white wine
5 or 6 marjoram sprigs, leaves chopped
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
¾ cup grated grana Padano cheese
In a large bowl mix together the flour, the salt, and the ground fennel. Add the Marsala, stirring it in briefly. Add the olive oil, and stir until you’ve got a sticky ball. Turn out the dough onto a clean surface, and knead quickly until it’s relatively smooth, only about a minute or so. The dough will feel a little oily. Wrap the dough in plastic, and let it rest, unrefrigerated, for about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
While the dough is resting, set up a large pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Blanch the Swiss chard for about 2 minutes. Drain it into a colander, and run cold water over it to stop the cooking and to bring up its green color. Squeeze as much water out of the chard as you can. Then give the chard a few extra chops.
In a large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot, and sauté until it softens, about a minute or so. Add the chard, seasoning with the salt, black pepper, and the fennel seeds, and sauté about 2 minutes longer. Add the raisins, with their soaking liquid, and the almonds. Take the pan off the heat, and add the marjoram. Let it all cool for a few minutes, then add the eggs and the grana Padano, mixing them in well.
Roll out the dough, and drape it into your 9-inch pan or tart ring (if using the ring, place it on a Silpat-lined baking sheet), leaving a little overhang all around. Add the filling, smoothing out the top. Trim the dough overhang neatly all around. Drizzle the top with a little olive oil. Bake until the crust is browned and the filling is firm, about 40 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.