Early last summer my 16-year old daughter introduced me to tartines, those classic French open-faced sandwiches that suggest a vibrant fruit tart but with vegetables. I had taken her to lunch at a nearby café to celebrate the start of her summer vacation. As she scanned the menu, she pointed to a section labeled “Tartines” and mentioned that her high school French class had talked about them a few weeks earlier. She then launched into an enthusiastic explanation of how they are made.
I was reminded of that day a few weeks ago when I was browsing recipes in the New York Times and ran across a David Tanis column on the subject. In Grilled Cheese? Try a Tartine Recipe Instead, Tanis describes tartines as similar to a small pizza made of toasted bread, cheese, and any number of savory toppings. He also observes that tartines are a popular menu item in tiny neighborhood cafes and bistros in Paris presumably because of their convenience.
This got me to thinking about how tartines could be a great weekday option for busy families. They can be prepared on the fly and customized to fit both the time of day and individual preferences. Cleanup is minimal since they require the use of only a few dishes. Most importantly, everyone can participate in their preparation, even the kids.
Start by toasting a slice of crusty bread. I like to use ciabatta, a flat, elongated Italian-style bread that is the perfect combination of chewy interior surrounded by a crispy outer crust. However, if you can’t find it, then really any type of bread will do.
Next, layer on a combination of veggies and cheese (any or all of which you could have prepped the weekend before) and then pop everything under the broiler or in a toaster oven just until the cheese melts and starts to bubble invitingly. Finish with a splash of extra virgin olive oil, a drizzle of good quality balsamic vinegar (the syrupy kind), or a sprinkle of herb salt.
In terms of toppings, the sky’s the limit. Tanis has some interesting ideas, but for kids, more familiar versions may be a safer bet. My family has tried, and liked, mozzarella and roasted red pepper (from a jar is fine), turkey and cheddar, tuna and provolone, Gala apple and cheddar, and Bartlett pear and havarti.
You could even try a dessert tartine made with a smear of mascarpone cheese topped with some sliced strawberries. To make it extra sophisticated, drizzle a tiny amount of honey or that good quality balsamic vinegar over the top.
For today’s post, I’ve created two versions that are even more convenient than Tanis’ because they eliminate the need for a second trip to the oven. (Toasting the bread is the first.) Both use ricotta cheese, a soft, slightly sweet, white cheese that you may recognize as a common part of the filling in lasagna. I whip the ricotta with a little half-and-half and lemon juice to give it extra flavor and creaminess, and then I pair it with some roasted plum tomatoes and olive oil for a savory tartine or some store-bought orange marmalade and hazelnuts for a sweeter variation. Both are delicious and, in combination with a side salad, make an easy, family-friendly weeknight meal.
As for that lunch date with my teenage daughter, even though neither of us decided to order a tartine that day, what made it especially memorable was its unexpected glimpse into her daily life, a world that has seemed so impenetrable as of late.
1 cup ricotta cheese
zest of one lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice (preferably freshly squeezed from half a lemon)
1 tablespoon milk or half-and-half
4 large Roma (Plum) tomatoes (about 1 pound or 450 grams)
1 tablespoon olive olive
½ teaspoon herb salt (or ¼ teaspoon regular salt)
good quality balsamic vinegar
orange marmalade (or any other preferred jam)
¼ cup crushed hazelnuts, lightly toasted
1. Roast the tomatoes: Preheat the oven to 325ºF (160ºC). Line a medium, rimmed baking sheet with nonstick foil or parchment pepper. Wash and dry the tomatoes, cut out the cores, and then cut each tomato horizontally into three equal slices. In a medium bowl, toss the tomato slices with the olive oil and herb salt and then arrange them in a single layer on the rimmed baking sheet. Bake for about two hours, flipping them after an hour or so. The slices are done when they have shrunk to about half their original thickness, darkened in color, and begun to wrinkle. Let the slices cool. At this point, they can be used immediately or refrigerated for up to five days or frozen for up to six months.
2. Whip the ricotta: While the roasted tomatoes are cooling, place the ricotta cheese in a small bowl. Add the lemon zest, lemon juice and milk or half-and-half. Using an electric mixer on low speed or a whisk, beat the ricotta mixture until it is light and fluffy (about 2 minutes).
3. Toast the bread: Cut eight slices of ciabatta bread, each approximately ¾ inch (2 mm) thick. Toast in a toaster or under a broiler. Allow to cool slightly.
4. Assemble the tartines: For the savory tartines, spread 1-2 tablespoons of the whipped ricotta on each slice of bread, top with 3 roasted tomato slices, and drizzle with some balsamic vinegar. For the sweet tartines, spread 1-2 tablespoons of the orange marmalade, followed by 1-2 tablespoons of the whipped ricotta, on each slice of bread. Top with a drizzle of honey and some crushed hazelnuts.
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