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blood-orange

Recipe: Blood Orange Salad with Prosecco Anise Syrup

I believe my father’s relationship to the family kitchen was typical for an Italian man. There seem to be three ways Italian men, and I include Italian-Americans, involve themselves in the creation of family meals: They take over the entire dinner preparation in a intense, chef-like manner, locking out the rest of the family; they assert a dictatorial attitude about all things that come out of the kitchen, without actually cooking anything themselves (this kind of man will often do some food shopping just to make sure his wife is cooking with top-notch stuff—a very Roman approach); or they completely take over one aspect of food preparation and make it exclusively theirs, such as grilling, or preparing coffee in a fetishy way.  My own father took the one aspect route. He put himself in charge of buying and preparing all the fruit that came into the house. How and why this came about, I can’t say, but he certainly picked up some of it from his father, who made a huge deal of squeezing and sniffing supermarket fruits, especially melons, and approving or rejecting their ripeness before allowing them into his home. It may also have been a vestige of the Southern Italian farming and foraging life endured by our near ancestors, in which no prickly pear was left unexamined.

For my father, fruit was a way of life, almost as central to his existence as his golf clubs. He was enamored of all tropical fruits—pineapples, guavas, mangoes, papayas, kumquats—and he fashioned them into elaborate, well-chilled fruit salads in big glass bowls. In summer he busied himself peeling and slicing peaches and dousing them with red wine or occasionally white wine, or sometimes a splash of grappa. Strawberries or blueberries got tossed with grappa and a little sugar and sprigs of mint. Pears and apples he always served with cheese, after dinner or sometimes at lunch. He’d set out wedges of cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto to start a meal, or more often just cantaloupe sprinkled with salt, a trick he learned from his melon-crazed Puglian father. Cantaloupe also got cut in half and filled with vanilla ice cream, a perfect flavor combination, or, if we had it on hand, with sweet white wine, creating a kind of wine bowl. I absolutely loved that. Pineapple was his top all-time favorite fruit, and he’d slice it and drizzle it with sugar and rum. Bananas got a similar treatment, but he finished them with Kahlua. These were exotic and memorable desserts.

Another specialty of his was what we now call the smoothie. He usually made that with milk, ice cubes, sugar or honey, sometimes a little vanilla ice cream, and his fruit of choice, most often one of his beloved tropical fruits such as mango. Everything went into the blender, and it emerged as a fluffy pastel foam. I went through a nervous stomach era in my teenage years, and my father’s remedy for it was always one of his smoothies, often banana, which he insisted would soothe my perpetually churning gut. It helped more than the Maalox—I’ll have to give him that—but not as much as the Valium that I eventually got a prescription for.

He was a big believer in the health benefits of grapefruit, and he made a big deal about having grapefruit forks in their proper place in the cutlery drawer. (How many people even know what a grapefruit fork is anymore?) Oranges and nectarines he’d just slice up and present on a fancy platter, or work into a citrus fruit salad bowl. When he went to Florida for the winter he always sent me bags of sweet, nipple-topped Honeybell oranges in January. I really loved them, and now I miss them, since I have to order them myself and often forget. Their season is very short. It’s right now, in fact. I’m going to order some as soon as I post this blog.

After dinner in winter he’d bring tangerines to the table, along with whole nuts and a nutcracker and a bottle of Sambuca. That was a lovely cold weather ritual and a fun mess, with peels and shells all over the place. And to the astonishment of family and friends, he’d cut lemons in half and eat them like orange slices. I believe that’s a Southern Italian custom, having become one, I’m certain, only because their lemons are sweeter and more flavorful than ours. I think he used to sprinkle them with sugar. And then there was the juicing ritual. I can see him working in the kitchen at his hand-cranked citrus juicer with a crate’s worth of hollowed-out orange or grapefruit halves strewn all around him. I never saw him more content, almost Buddha-like.

In memory of my father, I’ve created this blood orange salad to celebrate the New Year. I’ve fashioned it in his style, with a little booze included. It’s something I know he would have loved.

Happy New Year’s to you.

A note about blood oranges: Moro and Tarocco blood oranges, both originally from Sicily, are now grown in California, Texas, and Arizona. I used to find imported Sicilian ones. They were very expensive but richly flavored. Since Sunkist started producing them here, I don’t see the imported ones much any more, but local blood oranges can be very good, and they’re the same varieties grown in Sicily, usually Moro and Tarocco. The Moro is acidic and can sometimes taste like baby aspirin, but in a good way. Tarocco is sweeter. The blood color of these oranges varies from fruit to fruit. Some are just barely tinged with red; others are startling dark, burgundy. If you can find Taroccos, use them for this salad.

Blood Orange Salad with Prosecco Anise Syrup

(Serves 4 as a dessert or as a palate cleanser between courses)

1½ cups  prosecco (you can use slightly flat leftover prosecco if you have it on hand)
1 tablespoon limoncello
2 whole star anise
½ cup sugar

6 blood oranges
A handful of nice-looking small basil leaves

Pour the prosecco and limoncello into a small saucepan. Add the star anise and the sugar, and give it a stir. Boil over medium-high heat until it’s reduced by half. You should see large bubbles forming on the surface when it’s just done, an indication that you’ve got a nice syrup. Place the pot in the refrigerator until well chilled and thickened. It should have the consistency of loose honey.

Peel and slice the oranges into thin rounds. Lay them out in a slightly overlapping circular pattern on a pretty serving platter (one that’s slightly banked at the edges is best, as it can catch the syrup). Drizzle the prosecco syrup over the top, and decorate with the basil leaves.

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dino-xmas

Recipes:
Orange Flower Aperitivo
Orange Olivata Crostini

For me the aroma of orange has always been linked to Christmas. My father’s golf pro buddies would show up at my childhood home for holiday whisky sours, one of them inevitably bearing a little crate of highly waxed tangerines that, as the evening wore on, got opened up all over the house, their peels winding up on the floor, in the rug, their strong oils let loose by stomping feet. What a wonderful aroma. And then there were the big navel oranges my father always stuffed into the tip of our Christmas stockings, a dumbfounding gift when the refrigerator was crammed full of them, and when what I really wanted to find there was a $1.65 one-way ticket into Manhattan. Fast forward to me now, running my own little Christmas household. I always make a Sicilian orange salad as part of Christmas Eve dinner,  with red onions, black olives, mint, black pepper, and my best Sicilian olive oil (which would be Ravida). It is the most refreshing thing in the world to eat after our big traditional Southern Italian fish meal.

Another source of holiday orange is orange flower water, whose aroma drives me wild with desire. That gorgeous liquid is made from orange flower blossoms. It doesn’t smell much like orange, but its amazing floral scent can take your holiday-heavy mind away to far-off, exotic places. It’s the perfume in ricotta cheesecake, which is traditional in Southern Italy for Easter but shows up at just about every holiday of ours, and always at Christmas. I buy orange flower water from France that comes in little cobalt blue bottles. I buy that kind just because the packaging is so beautiful, but Italian and Middle Eastern versions are also easy to find. It’s good just to sniff in, but a few drops mixed into a bowl of honeyed ricotta make for me a truly perfect dessert. I love it drizzled over sliced oranges too. A few years ago I made a tangerine orange flower sorbetto for Christmas Eve that was a big hit with my stuffed, drunken guests. Another year the same flavor combo turned up in a Sicilian-inspired gelatina that I put together with too little gelatin. It was a bit of a sloppy mess, but the aroma was pure beauty. You can overdo it with this stuff. Like any kind of perfume, an excess can make you or your food seem whorish, and we don’t want that (do we?).

Lately I’ve been wondering how orange flower water would taste with alcohol. I always knew it was a key ingredient in the Ramos gin fizz, but I’ve never, believe it or not, had one of those drinks. I’ve discovered that a few drops added to a vodka martini are a lovely touch. I’ve also learned that adding orange flower water to gin and dry vermouth gives you what is called a Victorian martini, a real named drink. I haven’t tried that yet, but I’m sure it’s excellent. Yet what really lifted my spirits was when I added a little to cold white wine. I came up with the Christmas aperitivo of my dreams. I mixed dry white wine (a falanghina from Campania), a splash of Cointreau, and a sprinkling of orange flower water. This slightly haunting drink is, I think, a very nice way to open up a Christmas day meal. And since, in theory, you should always have a little something to eat along with your drink, here’s an orange-tinged olivata to go with it. Merry Christmas to you, and happy holiday cooking.

orange-flower-drink
My orange flower aperitivo in the company of garlic and grape Christmas tree ornaments.

Orange Flower Aperitivo

Fill a chilled wine glass about three quarters full with very cold, dry white wine. Add a teaspoon of chilled Cointreau and about 4 or 5 drops of orange flower water. Garnish with a long orange peel. Also nice on the rocks.

__________

Orange Olivata

1 cup Gaeta olives, pitted
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
The grated zest from 1 large orange
2 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
4 thyme sprigs, the leaves only
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Cointreau
Freshly ground black pepper

Place all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until you have a rough paste. The texture should be a little chunky.  Spoon the olivata into a serving bowl. You can make it a day or two ahead and refrigerate it, but be sure to get it back to room temperature before serving. Serve on toasted baguette slices.

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caravaggio
Red and green through the eyes of Caravaggio.

Recipe: String Bean Salad with Tomatoes, Savory, and Toasted Walnuts

During Christmas season I inevitably find myself making a lot of red and green foods. As farty as that sounds, I can’t help it. I like to color-coordinate dishes. I’ve made all-yellow meals in summer, and all-green ones in spring. It’s a way I organize my culinary thoughts, a path that’s not solely about flavor but just as much about physical beauty.

Christmas especially motivates me to cook in colors. I’ll throw pomegranate seeds and pistachios on roast pork, or finish a beet salad with a spoonful of mint pesto. This urge makes me feel a little like Miss Semi-Homemade with her color-coordinated cocktails, headbands, and napkin rings. I used to think she was crazy, but I don’t believe so anymore. She’s just hyper-orderly in an extremely dopey way. I understand. You want to create something that pleases you and lets you relax into your accomplishment.

So here’s a red and green string bean salad that may help you ease into Christmas. It’s delicious with roast duck or goose.

String Bean Salad with Tomatoes, Savory, and Toasted Walnuts

(Serves 4)

1 pound string beans, the ends trimmed
1 pint grape tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise
1 scallion, very thinly sliced, using some of the tender green part
A large handful of very fresh walnut halves, lightly toasted
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
A 1/4-inch-thick round slice of pancetta, cut into small cubes
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 whole allspice, ground to a powder
A few sprigs of winter savory, the leaves chopped
1 tablespoon Spanish sherry vinegar

Put up a medium-size pot of water and bring it to a boil. Drop in the string beans, and blanch for two minutes. Pour them into a strainer, and run cold water over them to bring up their green color. Let them drain well.

Place the string beans, the tomatoes,  the scallion, and the walnuts in a pretty serving bowl (something more wide than deep). Season with salt and black pepper.

Put a medium skillet on medium-high heat. Add the olive oil, and let it get warm. Add the pancetta, and sauté until it has rendered most of its fat and is nice and crisp. Add the garlic, the allspice, and the savory, and sauté a minute, just to release their flavors. Turn off the heat, and add the vinegar, letting it bubble for a few seconds in the skillet’s heat. Pour it all over the string beans, and toss well. Check for seasoning, adding more salt or black pepper, if needed.  Let it sit about 1/2 hour before serving.

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Trout Saltimbocca

trout

Recipe: Trout with Prosciutto, Sage, and Lemon

I have to admit to myself that the road to weight control and good health is pretty obvious. For starters, cut down on refined carbs and saturated fats. That leaves vegetables and fish. I love seafood of all kinds, but if I fail to put a little creativity into the preparation, a fish fillet can be pretty boring. A squeeze of lemon? Forget it. You’ve got to mix it up. And that’s the culinary challenge.

I often analyze classic Italian meat dishes, steal their flavorings, and apply them to fish. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it can be a taste revelation. Here I’ve pulled out the ingredients for saltimbocca, the Roman veal dish. Take away the veal, and you’re basically left with prosciutto and sage. Saltimbocca is a very simple dish, but it has big flavor. The trick is to find the right fish.

First I tried salmon for the saltimbocca treatment. The result was cloying. I tried tilefish, but the prosciutto and sage overwhelmed the insipid meat. Then I used trout. Now it came out just right, rich the way rich is supposed to be, luscious and suave. It was the success I had hoped for, confirming my conviction that a little pork will improve just about anything. Sage is often a problem herb, musty and bitter, but just a few fresh leaves united the prosciutto with the trout in what I found to be a profound way.

The recipe is easily doubled or tripled.

Trout with Prosciutto, Sage, and Lemon

(Serves 2)

2 good-size trout fillets
1 shallot, very thinly sliced
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
The juice from ½ a lemon
A few big scrapings of nutmeg
Black pepper
Salt
6 beautiful fresh sage leaves
2 very thin slices prosciutto di Parma
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

In a small bowl, mix the lemon juice with a tablespoon of olive oil. Season it with the nutmeg, black pepper, and salt (go light on the salt, since the prosciutto is salty). Lay the trout fillets, skin side down, in a small baking dish. Pour the lemon oil over them. Scatter the shallot on top. Place 3 sage leaves on each fillet, and then cover the fillets with the prosciutto. Dot the top with butter, and bake until the prosciutto is lightly crisped and the trout is just tender (mine took about 6 minutes, but judge the time by the thickness of your fish). Serve right away.

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meatballs

Recipe: Lamb and Ricotta Salata Meatballs on Tomato Arugula Soup

A few days after Thanksgiving I came down with a head-swelling cold. I expected it to keep me in bed for at least a day, but no, this cold made me fidgety and sick but still up and wandering the cold streets. It put me in a frustrating and confusing state of mind. I needed soothing food, but not from, say, a Chinese take-out. I wanted to make it myself—a spicy, steaming, healthy, Italian-tasting restorative. I didn’t want to knock myself out in the kitchen, but I did need to burn off some of the nervous energy the cold was inexplicably giving me. Cooking was the thing. I now recall that a thick, stuffy head has often made me restless. So I cook. This time my stuffy head told me to make meatballs.

So here are spicy lamb meatballs blended with salty ricotta salata and served on a tomato arugula soup (really more of a loose sauce than a proper soup). This is a different meatball experience from your Sunday supper meatballs that simmer in sauce for hours. These are the meatballs you remember grabbing from the pan, hot, crisp, and greasy, before grandma lowered them into the steaming cauldron. Their outside is crunchy, their inside still a touch pink. This dish plus a few glasses of Dolcetto wine cured my cold. I know it is common knowledge that the histamines in red wine only clog you up more, but don’t believe it. This is the best remedy for a winter cold.

Lamb and Ricotta Salata Meatballs on Tomato Arugula Soup

(Serves 4)

For the meatballs:

1½ pounds ground lamb
2 tablespoons breadcrumbs, not too dry, not too finely ground
1 garlic clove, minced
⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon spicy paprika, plus a little more for garnish (I used Basque pimen d’espelette)
2 egg yolks
½ cup grated ricotta salata, plus extra for garnish
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, well chopped
A few large sprigs of marjoram, the leaves chopped, plus a little more for garnish
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A generous drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for sautéing.

For the tomato arugula soup:

Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
A pinch of ground cinnamon
A splash of dry Marsala or dry vermouth
1 28-ounce can and 1 15-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, well chopped, with the juice
½ cup good quality chicken broth, possibly a little more
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A few drops Spanish sherry vinegar
A handful of wild or baby arugula, stemmed

To make the meatballs:

Place all the ingredients for the meatballs in a big bowl, and mix them well with your fingers. Try not to pack down the meat too much. The mixture should be well seasoned. Form it into medium-size meatballs, about 1½ inches across.

To make the soup:

In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot, and sauté until softened. Add the garlic and the pinch of cinnamon, and sauté a minute longer. Add the Marsala or vermouth, and let it boil away. Add the tomatoes and the chicken broth, and cook at a lively bubble for about 8 minutes. Season with salt and black pepper. The soup should be just a little looser than a typical tomato sauce for pasta, so add more broth or water if needed. Turn off the heat, and add a few drops of the vinegar and the arugula. The heat from the sauce will gently wilt the arugula.

When you’re ready to serve the dish, pour about a half inch of olive oil into a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the meatballs, and brown them well on all sides, leaving their centers slightly pink. This should take about 5 minutes.

Ladle some tomato arugula soup into four bowls, about an inch or so of soup in each. Drain the meatballs on paper towels, and place four or five in each bowl, on top of the sauce. Sprinkle ricotta salata and a pinch of spicy paprika over each bowl. Scatter on the remaining marjoram, and finish each bowl with a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Serve hot.

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parmigiano

Recipe: Endive Baked with Marsala and Parmigiano Reggiano

Thanksgiving is not my favorite food holiday. Words that for me describe its tastes are mushy, sweet, and dry. I think the perfect Thanksgiving dinner would be a big piece of crisp turkey skin and a salad drizzled with gravy. Good cheese would improve things. In fact, what’s really missing from Thanksgiving is Parmigiano Reggiano. Its elegant presence and pineapple crunch can focus a meal and provide a taste destination to really look forward to.

So as an attempt to infuse Thanksgiving with a few grand Italian flavors, here’s an endive dish using two of Italy’s treasured ingredients, Parmigiano Reggiano and Marsala. It’s pleasantly bitter, a touch salty, but also light and full of unami. It slips right down, cutting through all the sweet potato build-up.

Happy Thanksgiving to you.

endive

Endive Baked with Marsala and Parmigiano Reggiano

(Serves 6 or 7 as a side dish)

Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
10 endives (on the small side)
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon sugar
Salt
Black pepper
5 thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped, plus a little extra for garnish
½ cup dry Marsala
¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a large sauté pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil and the butter over medium heat. When the mix gets foamy and hot, add the endives and shallot, seasoning with salt, black pepper, and the sugar (this will help the endive to brown). Scatter on the thyme, and sauté, turning the endives around a few times, until they’re lightly browned all over. Pour on the Marsala, turning the endives around in it and letting it bubble for a few minutes. Lift the endives from the pan with tongs, and line them up in a baking dish. Drizzle them with a thread of olive oil, and pour all the pan juices over the them. Cover with foil.

Bake until tender when poked with a thin knife, about 45 minutes. Uncover, and sprinkle on the Parmigiano. Put the dish back in the oven for another 5 minutes or so, just until the cheese is melted and lightly golden (give it a final short run under the broiler if it’s not brown enough). Finish with a few turns of black pepper and a scattering of fresh thyme. Serve hot.

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egg-wash1
A dreamlike egg wash.

Recipe: Pizza di Scarola with Black Olives and Raschera

Many of my dreams involve food preparation. I suppose that’s only natural for someone who cooks as much as I do. The dreams are sometimes truly horrible. A recurring theme is putting a duck or a rabbit in the oven and then discovering the thing is still alive and I’m slow-torture roasting it to death. But sometimes they’re just peculiar (why can’t dreams ever be 100 percent uplifting?). For instance a few nights ago I dreamed that I needed to line up a bunch of old-fashioned glasses and drop an egg yolk into each one. Then I had to pour water into each glass, and stir with a fork until well blended, as they say in cooking. In each glass I placed a pastry brush. There were maybe thirty glasses all lined up on a stainless steel counter. I can’t remember what came next, or maybe that was it. Egg wash. A whole lot of egg wash.

I can’t say what provoked the dream, but I do know one thing: It got me thinking about pastry. I decided I needed to cook up one of my most beloved savory tarts, pizza di scarola (in Southern Italy almost every food that’s round and relatively flat is called pizza, even if it’s sweet). Pizza di scarola is a Neapolitan classic, a double-crusted pie traditional on Christmas Eve but available at pizza shops in Naples year round. I make mine with an olive oil and sweet wine dough, though you can also make it with a yeast dough. For some reason the mix of sweet wine, olive oil, and flour makes the uncooked dough smell like an underripe banana. I kid you not.

Anchovies, capers, pine nuts, raisins, and olives can all find their place in the escarole tart, so if you want you can really load it up with Italian pantry hits. But the more I make the tart, the cleaner I like it. Here I use only black olives and the gentlest hint of anchovy (gotta have the anchovy).

A little cheese is a must. Caciocavallo is what I usually go for, but this time I had a gorgeous looking hunk of Raschera in my fridge and thought its gentler tang and creaminess would work really well. Raschera is a DOP cow’s milk cheese from Piemonte. It’s firm but moist and, like caciocavallo, a good melter. And it has a lovely hay aroma.

The main reason I made a pizza di scarola this time was to have the opportunity to use an egg wash on something. That’s how it goes sometimes in the wacky world of cooking. But believe me, this great tart is worth making even if your dreams don’t demand it. It’s got a real holiday feel to it. I’m bringing one over to my in-laws’ this year to kick-start our Thanksgiving dinner (which can use some Italian flavors). And  from the Skinny Guinea point of view, the thing is extremely good and good for you.

scarola

Pizza di Scarola with Black Olives and Raschera

Use a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, ideally one with smooth, not fluted, sides, for a nice rustic look. Or use a pastry ring on a Silpat-lined baking tray (that’s what I did).

(Serves 6 to 8 as an antipasto)

For the crust:

2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sweet white wine, such as moscato
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil (a good Sicilian one would be best; I used Ravida)

For the filling:

1 large head escarole (about 1 1/2 pounds), washed and cut into small pieces
Salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, minced
4 anchovy fillets, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
A few big scrapings of nutmeg
1/2 cup pitted black olives, such as Gaeta, roughly chopped
1 large egg
1 cup grated Raschera cheese (which is moist, so it’s easiest to grate using the bigger holes on your grater)

Plus:

1 egg yolk stirred with a little water for the egg wash.

To make the crust, place the flour in a large bowl. Add the salt, and mix well. Pour the wine onto the flour, and then add the olive oil. Mix well with a wooden spoon until you have a moist ball. Turn the dough out onto a clean surface, and knead briefly, just until it becomes somewhat smooth, about a minute. Cut the dough into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other. Wrap each piece in plastic, and let them rest, unrefrigerated, for about 1 1/2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

For the filling, set up a pot of water, and bring it to a boil. Add the escarole, and cook for about 2 minutes. Drain it into a colander, and run cold water over it to bring up its green color. Squeeze as much water out of the escarole as you can.

In a large sauté pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium flame. Add the garlic and the anchovy, and sauté for a minute to release their flavors. Add the escarole, seasoning it with salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg, and sauté a minute or so longer. Take the pan from the burner, and let cool for about 10 minutes.

Lightly oil your tart pan or ring.

Add the olives, the egg, and the cheese to the escarole, and mix them in well.

Roll the bigger dough disk out so it’s a bit larger than  the tart pan (no need to flour the surface with this dough; with all the olive oil in it, it’ll peel right off with no sticking). Drape the dough into the pan, leaving some overhang all around. Trim off any excess. Roll the smaller disk out in the same fashion. Pour the filling into the pan, smoothing the top. Place the other dough round on top. Give the edges a quick little egg wash. Pinch the top and bottom together all around with your fingers to form a good seal. Poke a few tiny holes in the top (I do so with a metal barbecue skewer). Brush the top with a thin coat of the dreamy egg wash, and bake until the top is golden, about 40 minutes. Let the tart rest for about 20 minutes before serving. Eat warm or at room temperature.

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