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Prepared ingredients make tart stress-free

| Sunday, Feb. 24, 2008

Back in the 1970s and '80s, I spent hours in the kitchen preparing for dinner parties. Typically, an evening's fare started with an array of homemade appetizers, continued with a substantial first course, was followed by an entree and several sides, and ended with dessert, coffee and liqueurs.

Thank goodness those days are over!

Fast-forward to today to see how times have changed. No longer do I feel that every morsel I offer guests needs to be prepared exclusively by me. And those bloated menus, which had us eating until midnight, have been sensibly reduced.

Take, for example, a small get-together that my husband and I hosted last weekend. A delicious slice of chevre served with lightly toasted bread slices and red grapes was all that was needed to get the evening off to a good start. For the main course, which was served and eaten in the kitchen, there was a pot of homemade carrot soup, a leek and pancetta tart, and a green salad. Dessert was simple: tart apples and fresh Medjool dates.

I took advantage of several timesaving products. The potage was prepared with baby carrots that already were peeled and needed only to be sliced, and the salad was assembled with pre-washed, table-ready greens. The tart, which turned out to be the night's favorite dish, was a breeze to make because I used purchased puff pastry for the crust.

For the tart, I cut out a 9-inch round from the dough and traced a border inside it. Then sauteed leeks bound with some creme fraiche were spread in the center of the pastry shell and topped with grated Gruyere and diced pancetta. When baked, the borders miraculously rise up to form the sides of the tart.

Oh, and did I mention that I even found the pancetta already diced at Trader Joe's?


Leek and Pancetta Tart

The tart shell can be prepared 1 day ahead; keep it covered and refrigerated.

• 1 sheet frozen puff pastry, about 9 inches square and {1/8} inch thick, defrosted in the refrigerator (see Note )

• All-purpose flour for dusting work surface

• 2 ounces pancetta, cut into { 1/4}-inch dice

• 3 tablespoons olive oil

• 4 cups chopped leeks, white and light-green parts only (about 5 medium leeks)

• 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

• 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

• 1/4 cup creme fraiche

• 1/3 cup grated Gruyere cheese

Place the pastry sheet on a lightly floured work surface. Using a rolling pin, gently flatten any seams in the dough, then roll it into a 10-inch square. Using the removable bottom of a 9-inch tart or springform pan as a guide, cut a 9-inch circle from the dough and transfer it to a baking sheet. With a small, sharp knife, gently trace a 1/2-inch border inside the circle, taking care not to cut all the way through the dough. (You want to trace a frame within the circle that will rise around the filling and form the sides of the tart.) Refrigerate the tart shell while you prepare the filling.

Arrange an oven rack at the center position, and heat the oven to 425 degrees.

Place a medium-size, heavy skillet over medium heat and, when hot, saute the pancetta for 4 to 5 minutes, until it's crisp and golden. Use a slotted spoon to remove the pancetta; let it drain on paper towels.

Add the olive oil to the same skillet, and place the pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the leeks and saute, stirring, until softened but not browned, for about 8 minutes. Add the thyme, salt and pepper. Remove the leek mixture from heat and stir in the creme fraiche. Cool the mixture for 5 minutes.

Spread the leek mixture evenly within the inside circle of the tart shell. Sprinkle the leeks with cheese, then with the pancetta. Bake until the sides have puffed and are golden brown, for about 20 minutes.

Cool for 5 minutes, then cut the tart into 6 slices.

Makes 6 servings as an appetizer, first course or side dish.

Note : A 17.3-ounce package of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry contains two sheets, each about 9 inches square.

Betty Rosbottom is a cooking school director from Massachusetts.

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