The thing about spring in Seattle is that it isn’t really its own season. It’s a transition, a two-step shuffle between varying shades of gray. It is kind of warm, kind of sticky, kind of windy, sometimes sunny and mostly damp. Being a little bit of everything is ok, though. It grants a certain leeway: in a loosey-goosey season you can shake off the cobwebs of winter with caprice. Last Friday, I made soup, and I was quite content slurping something warm. A couple days later, I walked past a magnolia tree blooming fuchsia, which made me want to drink rosé and make a tarte provençal. So, voilà, quoi.

harbingers of sunshine

Provençal cooking would be a summer, solidly, if cuisines were seasons. Bowing at the altar of freshness, its recipes seek not to blend flavors but distill them. Each ingredient becomes more pure in the sum, each part more of itself in the whole. Winter still falls on the people of Provence; their genius is in creating this purity of flavors regardless of the season. The tarte provençal (which is not egg based – think of it as a beautiful, rectangular pizza rather than a quiche) lends itself well to this ethos. In the summer it is delicate and sweet, made with fresh tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. In the winter, preserved vegetable and dried herbs make an intense, ripe version that burns with the promise of summer.

The tarte is a study in contrasts, founded on the balance between saltiness, sweetness and acidity. Much as the impressionist painters relied on a few, well-placed primary colors to craft depth and light and shape, the handful of ingredients create their impact through dissimilarity. The sardines and olives are scattered over red and yellow peppers that have been roasted to enhance their sweetness. This combo rests on a bed of dense tomato sauce, tangy and bright against the sweet-salty toppings. The soft medley is supported by yet another counter point: a crisp and buttery pastry crust.

salty, silky goodness

Best of all, the recipe is as loosey-goosey as a Seattle spring—it thrives on whim. You can use a jar of roasted peppers, or broil them yourself. You can toss in a few more olives when you’re craving an extra-salty kick, or even use Dufour Puff Pastry for a flaky, airy crust instead of a crisp one. The important thing to remember is that with few ingredients, quality counts. The oil-cured black olives we pack out are meaty and briney and balanced. The ones with garlic would be delicious on the tarte, if less traditional than the ones with herbes de provence. I wouldn’t dream of using any sardines other than the Connétable brand. Lightly salted, with delicate flesh, the fillets are long and hold together, essential for making the crisscross pattern on the tarte. I used the regular ones, packed in olive oil, but I’m dying to try it with the lemon ones. Good herbes de provence are key, ones that have been stored in a cool dark place. And don’t forget that glass of rosé (Commanderie de la Bargemone, perhaps?); it won’t feel like Provence without it.

Tarte Provençal
adapted from Le meilleur de la France

For the crust:
2 cups flour
11 tbsp salted butter, chilled and cubed
1 egg yolk
about 3 tbsp cold water

With your fingers or a pastry cutter, blend the butter into the flour until it is evenly dispersed, with lumps smaller than a pea. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and drop in the egg yolk. With a fork, start mixing the yolk with the flour, adding a tablespoon of water at a time, until the mixture comes together but remains fairly dry. Shape it into a ball; the dough should not be very sticky. Wrap it in plastic film and let it rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Roll out the dough to for a rectangle and place it on a baking sheet. With a fork, pierce the crust throughout. Cover in plastic and return to refrigerator for another 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 425F

Remove the plastic, lay a sheet of parchment paper over the crust. Cover it with pie weights, rice, or beans and bake for 10 minutes. Remove weights and paper and bake for an additional 4 minutes. Remove from oven.

For the topping:
1 large onion, minced
1 28oz can crushed tomatoes or ten fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tbsp herbes de provence
1 red pepper
1 yellow pepper
1 tin Connétable sardine fillets
6 oil-cured olives with herbes de provence, cut in half, pits removed

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat olive oil over med-low heat and add the onions. Cover, and let them cook slowly until quite tender but not browned, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and herbes de provence, cook for another five minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and tomato paste. Let the mixture simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it becomes a thick puree, let it cool.

Broil the peppers over a burner and cut into thin strips. Alternatively, you can slice the peppers, toss them with oil and place on a baking sheet lined with foil. Set the oven on Hi and broil the peppers for about 12 minutes, until limp and charred on the bottom.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Spread the tomato sauce on the crust. Scatter the peppers evenly over the sauce. Make a crisscross pattern with the sardines, making three diagonal lines in one direction, then three in the opposite direction. You should have 12 “squares” in the pattern. Place one olive half in the center of each square.

Bake for 25 minutes.