Whenever I drop into the Caves Caprioglio to pick up wine for my cooking classes, twinkly-eyed Hélène asks the same question.
"Ma petite Rosa, qu'est ce qu'on cuisine aujourd'hui?" (What are you cooking today?)
Often the answer is pissaladière. If I had to name the one dish that seems to best represent Niçoise cooking, this tart of caramelized onions on bread dough would be it. The ingredients couldn't be simpler or more modest, but a good dose of patience transforms them into one of the triumphs of southern French cooking.
The name comes not from its relationship to pizza — though I sometimes wonder if this tart was a precursor to today's tomato-and-cheese versions — but from the word pissala, the Niçois term for salted anchovy paste. Traditionally a spoonful of potent pissala is stirred into the onions once they have melted into a golden mass, providing a salty contrast to their intense sweetness. Anchovy fillets can replace the paste, making it easier for enemies of this pungent fish to pick it off (their loss, I say!).
Unlike pizza dough, the bready base for pissaladière is rich and airy, almost cakey. This can be achieved with the addition of an egg — a much-debated practice that Hélène and I have discussed at length — or with a generous amount of olive oil (and sometimes a knob of butter).
The real secret to great pissaladière, though, lies in the long, slow cooking of the onions with olive oil, thyme, bay leaf and enough salt to bring out their juices. Gradually they turn translucent and then pale golden, shrinking to a fraction of their original size. At this stage, such a small amount of jammy onion seems a paltry reward for so many tears. Don't worry: spread over the now-puffy dough and baked, it turns deep golden, preferably with a few charred edges. Only now is it time to add the anchovies and olives, which otherwise would shrivel up in the oven.
I usually think of pissaladière as one of those dishes that it's best not to toy with too much, so when I saw that it had been reinvented for the Hi Beach by ultra-creative chef Mauro Colagreco of Le Mirazur in Monaco, I couldn't resist ordering it. Sure enough, this pissaladière broke all the rules: puff pastry replaced bread dough, the onions were almost candied rather than simply caramelized, and a row of sardines stood in for the anchovies. Arugula, alfalfa sprouts and edible flowers topped the whole thing, as if covering up what most locals would consider a sacrilege.
Even I was a little dubious about whether this really was an improvement on the real thing, but with a view of turquoise water right to the horizon I was in no mood to quibble. My friend and editor Carolyn loved her carpaccio with foie gras shavings followed by some of the biggest gambas I had ever seen, while I continued with toothsome sautéed squid and roasted red peppers. The ambiant music and friendly staff made me want to come back — I'm aiming for the 8am yoga classes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, but failing that another of those Blue Lagoon cocktails might be just as relaxing.
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Wow, that pissaladiere sure looked nothing like the one we made with you in Nice! I have to admit that I broke from tradition too and substituted feta cheese for anchovies at the tea room. And although we don't have the turquoise ocean view, no one quibbled.
Hi Joy! I think feta would make a good substitute for the anchovies because it also has that intense saltiness. I must try that sometime - but I won't tell any of the locals!!
Hello Rosa! Great pissaladière receipe! I'm with Céline in Italy! I still would love to meet you.. maybe soon? contact me if you have some free time.. xxx