Savoury pies and bakes

Italian tomato tart

This Italian tomato tart – crostata di pomodoro – is so amazingly easy that even my 11-year old niece, Ellie, can make it. In fact, she just did! It’s simply made from puff pastry topped with fresh tomatoes, garlicky olive oil, basil and toasted pine nuts. It’s very light as there is no cheese – though you may add some if you want a pizza-like flavour.

Because the recipe is so simple, it is more than usually important to use only the best-quality ingredients. Buy puff pastry from a good bakery. (Although when I’m in the UK, I always keep Jus-Rol brand’s ready-rolled puff pastry in the fridge. With tomatoes from my garden in the summer, I’m able to whip up this tart in no time at all).

I have suggested Italian plum tomatoes to be authentic – they are fleshy with fewer seeds and ideal for this recipe – but you can use multi-coloured tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, or any variety of top-quality tomatoes. Use only the finest, sunniest, plumpest specimen you can find – it really will make a difference to the taste.

You can, of course, add other ingredients like olives, onions and so on. But I think less is definitely more in this recipe, and I like allowing the uncluttered tangy, grassy, herby, fruity taste of summer tomatoes to shine through.

This tart is perfect for picnics and light lunches, served with a salad, or wonderful cut into small squares and served with wine as an appetiser. Serves 4 – 6.

4 tablespoons Italian extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
7 medium Italian plum tomatoes
1 sheet uncooked puff-pastry, rolled to approx 12 by 12 inches
1 medium egg yolk, beaten
Small bunch basil leaves, torn
2 oz/ 50g pine nuts, lightly toasted in a small saucepan

1.    Combine the olive oil with garlic, salt and pepper and set aside.
2.    Thinly slice the tomatoes, removing as many brown cores and seeds as you can. Leave to drain on paper towels.
3.    Place the puff pastry square on a lightly floured surface. Cut ½-inch strips of pastry from all four sides.
4.    Brush the egg on the edges of the pastry square and arrange the strips along the top edges. Press down gently with a light hand – you should be left with a square puff pastry case.
5.    Lightly prick the bottom of the pastry case with a fork. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
6.    About 10 minutes before you are ready to cook, pre-heat the oven to 400F/ 200C/ gas mark 6.
7.    Bake the pastry case for 10 minutes, or until it rises and turns light golden-brown.
8.    Let the pastry cool a little, and brush the inside with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and garlic mixture and sprinkle with half the basil. Arrange the tomato slices over the top. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil and garlic mixture.
9.    Bake for 10 minutes until the pastry is golden-brown and the tomatoes have softened but are still intact.
10.    Cool the tart slightly. Sprinkle with the pine nuts and the remaining basil. Serve warm or at room temperature.



I was wary of doing another white bean recipe so soon after the recent two. But when you are vegetarian, there’s no such thing as ‘too many bean recipes’, right?

This pie is very typical of what vegetarians in the UK eat at around this time of the year. Similar pies also feature on the menus of the British restaurants that are currently very trendy (yes, many of us Brits are re-discovering how delicious properly made regional British dishes can be – and falling in love with grandma-style hearty pies, stews, breads, cakes and puddings all over again!).

Artisanal virgin cold-pressed rapeseed oil (as opposed to pale, bland supermarket imitations) is worth hunting down. It has delicious, slightly sharp and herby flavour. It’s no wonder it’s currently all the rage: produced in the English countryside, it has been hailed by many as ‘the new olive oil’.

This recipe is wonderful served English-style with well-flavoured gravy and plenty of side vegetables. Serves 4.

PLEASE NOTE: I will post a Christmas-friendly recipe on this blog every day until 23rd December.

6 oz dried butterbeans, soaked for a few hours, OR 1 x 425g can
4 tablespoons rapeseed oil (if you want to be truly English about it) or vegetable oil
2 large onions, peeled and chopped
4 celery sticks, peeled and thickly sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 level tablespoons plain white flour
½ pint/ 300 ml vegetable stock
¼ pint/ 150 ml pale beer, or lightly flavoured mushroom stock
2 dried bay leaves
1 level tablespoon Marmite
1 heaped tablespoon wholegrain English mustard
Salt and pepper
9 oz/ 225g carrots, trimmed, scraped and thickly sliced
9 oz/ 225g swede or pumpkin, peeled and chunkily diced
9 oz/ 225g leeks, trimmed and thickly sliced
9 oz/ 225g baby turnips, trimmed, peeled and halved
4 oz/ 225g chestnut mushrooms, wiped with a wet cloth and halved
4 oz/ 100g small pearl onions, peeled and left whole
Scant tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Scant tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
Scant tablespoon fresh sage leaves, chopped
Scant tablespoon fresh marjoram, chopped (optional)
2 heaped tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
12 oz/ 400g fresh ready-rolled puff pastry
Beaten egg whites, cold milk or cold water to glaze

1. Soak the butterbeans for 3 or 4 hours. There is no need to soak them any longer otherwise, whilst cooking them, you’ll find yourself with pearlescent water – with no sign of the butterbeans! Cook for 30 – 45 minutes or until tender. Alternatively, rinse and drain canned butterbeans.
2. Heat the oil in a large, heavy saucepan. Add the onions and celery, and sauté until the vegetables are soft and translucent. Add the garlic and let it sizzle for a few seconds.
3. Lower the heat, sprinkle in the flour, and stir for a minute or so until it becomes a couple of shades darker and gives off ‘cooked’ aroma. Pour in the vegetable stock, beer or mushroom stock, and bay leaves, and cook until the liquid has thickened slightly.
4. Add the Marmite, mustard, seasoning, carrots, swede or pumpkin, leeks and turnips. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and cook for 10 – 15 minutes until the vegetables are al dente.
5. Add the mushrooms, baby onions, all the fresh herbs except parsley, and the cooked butterbeans. Cover and cook for another 10 minutes until all the vegetables are tender, and the beans have absorbed the flavours of the sauce. The vegetables should look chunky and not turn into a mush, so do keep an eye on the cooking time.
6. Add the parsley, adjust the seasoning, remove the bay leaves, and leave the mixture aside to cool. It should be somewhat runny but not too liquid – you don’t want the pie to be too sloppy or too dry, so it’s essential to get the consistency right.
7. Heat the oven to 200 C/ 400 F/ gas mark 6.
8. Lightly roll the pastry sheet once or twice with a rolling pin. Measure it against the top of a medium pie dish and cut around with a sharp knife, leaving a generous 1-inch edge all around that’s a little bigger than the dish. Cover the pastry lid with a damp tea towel to prevent it from drying out, and set aside.
9. Scrunch the excess remaining pastry into a ball, then roll it out until you have a thin pastry sheet. Cut this sheet into long, narrow strips.
10. Brush the rim of the pie dish with egg whites, milk or water. Brush the pastry lid and the pastry strips with the same.
11. Lightly grease the pie dish, and place the vegetable filling inside, levelling it out evenly. Arrange the pastry strips around the top of the rim, pressing down firmly.
12. Then carefully place the pastry lid on top, pressing it down firmly around the edges so that the pastry strips and the pastry lid fuse together. This is important, otherwise the filling will ooze out of any gaps in the pastry. Crimp the sides if you like, and make decorative designs on top if you wish. Pierce a tiny hole in the pastry lid to let the steam escape.
13. Bake the pie in the pre-heated oven for 20 minutes until puffed up and golden brown.
14. Leave to stand for 5 minutes before cutting into wedges. Serve with a red onion or mushroom gravy, if you like, alongside mashed or roast potatoes and steamed green vegetables like brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale or seasonal green cabbage like January King.