Watermelon Margarita

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Remember when you were a kid and summers seemed endless? When school would come to an end and you couldn’t even imagine that it would ever start up again? My childhood summers were like that. They were also hot, incredibly hot. Temperatures would routinely get above 110° F but we had no air conditioning to fight the heat. Just standing fans that seemed to blow non-stop during the whole summer, providing us with little to no relief. There were ice cold bottles of Coca Cola, rose-flavored ice cream, and jiggly jello desserts. There was the beach, the one we saw very few times each year, even though we lived on an island. This was the time before highways, when a trip from our home, in the middle of the island, to the beach took a long time and required meticulous preparations by my parents. These summers were filled with the sounds of crickets in the quiet, dense, and damp air that you could cut with a knife. The slow, lazy mornings were interrupted by the man with the pickup truck, driving from neighborhood to neighborhood and shouting over his megaphone: “Watermelons! I got watermelons!” We heard him before we saw him and his truck slowly driving down the road, its cab filled to the brim with enormous green-and-white, misshapen globes. Their bright red flesh would often be that night’s dinner, along with a slice of bread and a piece of halloumi cheese.

This year’s summer seemed anything but endless. It hadn’t even begun back in late June when I could feel the stress of its end bearing down on me. The weather has been mild, pretty close to perfect. The AC has kept even the hottest days at bay. There were no crickets and no rose-flavored ice cream. But there was watermelon. Perhaps disguised as a cold margarita, it can help you accept the summer’s end a little easier.

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Watermelon Margarita

Makes 2 drinks

Ingredients:

4 oz tequila
1.5 oz lime juice
1 oz Cointreau
fresh watermelon juice (see directions below)

Directions:

To make watermelon juice, blend cubes of watermelon flesh (you can leave the seeds in) in blender until smooth. You can pass it through a fine mesh sieve to remove the blended seeds if you want. Or leave it in the fridge and the small bits of seed will sink to the bottom. Or you can just leave them in the juice.

Pour tequila, lime juice, and Cointreau in a shaker with ice cubes. Shake for a few seconds and strain in two tall glasses with ice. Top with watermelon juice.

Lemon Cake with Raspberries and Pistachios

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It seems to me that this year has given us an amazing berry season, at least in the Northeast. Not only for strawberries and raspberries, but this year we’ve eaten blackberries so sweet and juicy that it felt like we had never tasted real blackberries before. And the blueberries have been consistently great for weeks. I love this time of year, with all the amazing fruits and vegetables overflowing in market stands and grocery shelves. I always end up buying way too many so I’m always looking for ways to preserve the ones we’ll never manage to eat before they spoil. So, I end up making lots of jam in the summer, as well as some pickled vegetables.

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This lemon cake with raspberries and pistachios is a fantastic way to use some of the beautiful raspberries of this season. When I saw the recipe in Bon Appétit, I was a little skeptical. I had already made a different raspberry cake with buttermilk and we were pretty happy with it. But I gave this recipe a try anyway. I’m so glad I did. This cake is spectacular! Its magic comes from the lemon syrup you brush on it as soon as it comes out of the oven. It soaks into the top part of the cake, so that when you eat it you get layers of sweetness and tanginess along with the distinctive floral taste of raspberries. And the pistachios and sprinkled sugar on top add a little crunch that makes the whole thing pop. And to top it all, it uses olive oil instead of butter, so it’s on the healthier side.

Believe me, you want to try this cake. It’s a total winner. And it also freezes beautifully (I freeze it in slices and defrost them on the countertop overnight), though it will probably disappear pretty quickly after it cools down.

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Lemon Cake with Raspberries and Pistachios – Slightly adapted from Bon Appétit

Note: Do not be tempted to use less syrup than the recipe calls for. The cake needs it all.

Ingredients:

A little vegetable oil for greasing pan
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
4 large eggs
1¼ cups plus 2 Tbsp. sugar, separated
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon plus ¼ cup fresh lemon juice, separated
¾ cup olive oil
1 cup fresh raspberries (about 4 oz.)
3 tablespoons chopped pistachios

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350°. Lightly grease a 9” diameter cake pan or springform pan with vegetable oil. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl.

Using an electric mixer, beat eggs and 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. With mixer running, add vanilla, 1 Tbsp. lemon juice, and lemon zest then gradually add oil, mixing just until combined. Fold in dry ingredients.

Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth top. Scatter berries over cake, then pistachios and 2 Tbsp. sugar. Bake cake until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 45–55 minutes.

While cake is baking, bring remaining ¼ cup sugar and remaining ¼ cup lemon juice to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring to dissolve sugar; let lemon syrup cool.

Transfer hot cake (still in pan) to a wire rack and immediately brush with lemon syrup (use all of it). Let cake cool completely in pan.

Cake can be stored for two days, wrapped tightly at room temperature. It can also be frozen.

Chilled Peach Soup with Fresh Goat Cheese

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Last week we spend a long weekend at Cape Cod, at Truro and Provincetown. It’s a summer tradition that for me almost started with a disaster.

It was the fall of 1994. A few months before, at the end of June, I had just told my friend Brad that I was gay. It was the first time I told anyone and during the next few months I was swimming in a mix of exhilaration and loneliness. The freeing sensation of finally acknowledging to someone else that I was gay was an experience like none I had ever experienced (or have since). “You don’t have to come out to your mailman,” Brad joked in that fall of 1994 after I told him how I was on a coming out rampage. I just couldn’t hold it in anymore.

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But it was also a time of loneliness. Here I was, freshly out and eager to start my new, my real, life, but I was stuck. I had just finished college and I was living in New Jersey, in a drab and depressing apartment next to a highway, with a straight roommate I had just met who didn’t know I was gay and with absolutely no gay friends or any idea where to find other gay people. My occasional trips to New York to meet with Brad were just not enough. Most of the time I felt trapped and alone.

So, it was during that fall that Brad told me about the vacation he had just taken with some friends. “We went to this amazing place!” he gushed. “It’s a little town at the tip of Cape Cod and its full of gay peopleIt’s like heaven.” Neither of us had heard of Ptown, as it’s often called, so this was a revelation. For me, it sounded like exactly what I needed.

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So, since I couldn’t take time off from work and since I needed some time to plan my trip, I ordered a TripTik from AAA (remember those?) and decided that I would drive up to this magical place called Provincetown…in February. Yes. In February. I had no idea that Ptown in February is bitterly cold, as you’d expect for a tiny village perched on the tip of Cape Cod in the middle of the North Atlantic across from Boston. And I didn’t know that almost everything would be closed and only a few locals who stayed around for the winter would be there. That there would be very few if any gay people and they would be old timers, hunkered down in their homes. This was 1994. There was no web and no other easy way for me to know any of this.

When February came, I kept delaying my trip. March came and I still hadn’t left. And then right when I was gearing up to drive up there, I went to a gay community event in New Jersey where I met a guy named Wayne who went on to become my first boyfriend. And when I told him about my plans he laughed. He explained how Ptown would be nothing like what I expected if I had gone in February and instead we planned a trip there that summer. It turned out to be exactly how Brad described it. So we went back the summer after that and the one after that and the one after that. And for twenty years now, along with peaches, chilled soups, and rosé wine, Ptown has been a summer tradition.

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Chilled Peach Soup with Fresh Goat Cheese – Slightly Adapted from Food and Wine

Ingredients:

3 cups sliced peeled peaches (about 4 peaches), plus more for garnish
1/4 cup finely diced peeled seedless cucumber
1/4 cup finely diced yellow bell pepper, plus more for garnish
1/4 cup diced dried apricots
2 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons crumbled fresh goat cheese, plus more for garnish
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar, plus more for seasoning
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Kosher salt
1 large garlic clove

Directions:

1. In a bowl, toss the peaches, diced cucumber, yellow pepper and apricots. Add the honey, 3 tablespoons of goat cheese, 1/4 cup of white balsamic vinegar and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Stir in 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt. Add the garlic. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

2. Discard the garlic. Transfer the contents of the bowl to a blender and puree. Add 1/4 cup of water and puree until very smooth and creamy; add more water if the soup seems too thick. Season with salt and white balsamic vinegar. Refrigerate the soup until very cold, about 1 hour.

3. Pour the peach soup into shallow bowls and garnish with the diced peach and bell pepper, and crumbled goat cheese. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and serve.

 

Pastitsio / Παστιτσιο (Makaronia tou Fournou / Μακαρονια του φουρνου)

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We have a tradition. When I go back home to visit my family, my mom makes the foods of my childhood that I miss. There’s koupepia, grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice and cooked in a tomato sauce, there’s rabbit stewed in onions and red wine, and there’s always makaronia tou fournou, known as pastitsio in Greece.

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Over the years, I’ve gotten recipes from my mom so that I could make these dishes myself whenever I wanted to. It’s not very easy. She has no written recipes and her measurements and directions don’t use American standards. When she says a cup of flour, she’s talking about a drinking glass she’s always used to measure. There are no exact times either. You may cook something until “it drinks its water,” meaning that the liquid evaporates, or until it katastithei, which means that its sauce thickens.

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So, I do my best and transcribe the recipes as well as I can and when I come back to New York I try them out a few times until I get the exact measurements that result in a dish as close to my mom’s as possible. An additional problem is that the ingredients may be different or tough to find. That’s the case, for example, with this recipe for pastitsio. While almost everything is readily accessible in the U.S., the macaroni my mom uses is tough to find. Though, as I explain in the recipe, any round macaroni would work fine. For a while, I couldn’t find halloumi either, the cheese from Cyprus that’s made with sheep and goat milks and has salt and bits of mint in it. It’s famous for not melting, so you can grill it or sauté it in a pan, but here it’s grated and added to the dish. Fortunately, halloumi is now sold in all grocery stores.

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So, here it is. My mom’s recipe for pastitsio or makaronia tou fournou. It’s not a difficult recipe, but it does have several steps. It’s a great project for a Sunday. If you are concerned about the quantity this recipe makes, after the pastitsio is cooked and cools down completely, you can cut it in portions and freeze them, wrapped in plastic. Whenever you want to eat it, defrost it in the fridge overnight and then reheat it in a 300° F oven for 15 minutes or until it’s warm through. Don’t microwave it because it will give it a strong egg taste.

I guarantee you that you will not regret making this dish. It’s a perfect combination of pasta, meat, and cream. I’ve been making it myself for years but my mom still makes it for me when I go home. After all, no matter how close my own pastitsio gets to my mom’s, hers is always better.

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Pastitsio (Makaronia to Fournou / Μακαρονια του φουρνου)

Notes: The pasta my mom uses is Mezzani A. If you can’t find it, use any thick, tube-shaped pasta. The chicken bouillon cubes are essential, so don’t skip them or change them. My mom has always used the Maggi brand. Same goes for the halloumi cheese. It’s irreplaceable in the recipe. Fortunately, most grocery stores carry it.

Ingredients:

Meat layer:
1-1.5 lbs ground pork or chicken
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
7 oz (200 gr) diced tomatoes in juice (half of a 14.5 oz can)
½ cup chopped parsley
1/2 chicken bouillon cube, crumbled
1/4 cup red (for pork) or white (for chicken) wine

Pasta layer:
1 lb mezzani pasta (see note)
1 whole halloumi cheese, finely grated
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 chicken bouillon cube, crumbled
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Bechamel sauce:
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (or shortening, or combination of the two)
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 liter milk
2 large eggs
1 whole halloumi finely grated
3 tablespoons unseasoned, dry breadcrumbs

Directions:

First, make the meat layer. Cook the onion in olive oil over medium high heat, stirring often, for about 4 minutes. Add ground meat. Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring often and breaking up any clumps. Add wine, salt and pepper, cinnamon, parsley, 1/2 maggi and tomatoes. Stir together and cook until almost all liquid has evaporated, about 12-15 minutes. Set aside and proceed with the rest of the recipe. DO AHEAD: Meat can be prepared up to 2 days ahead and stored in refrigerator, covered.

Then, make the pasta layer. If pasta is long, break into thirds, about 4 inches long. Cook pasta in plenty of unsalted water till al dente. Drain and return to pot. While still hot, add maggi, butter, and egg while stirring until the butter is melted. Add the halloumi. Stir well until everything is combined.

Put 3/4 of cooked pasta in bottom of 9 by 13 oval pan that is at least 2 ½ inches deep, then add meat and finally add remaining pasta on top.

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Make the bechamel. Melt butter in a medium pot over medium heat. When butter melts and begins to bubble, whisk in flour and cook, whisking frequently, until flour is cooked and just begins to turn darker in color about 5 to 6 minutes. Add all the milk at once, whisking continuously until thoroughly combined. Continue to simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Lightly beat eggs, temper them with a little of the hot thickened milk, and add carefully to béchamel, whisking constantly. Remove from heat. Add grated halloumi and stir well.

Spread bechamel on top of pasta and meat making sure to cover all the way to the edges. Smooth top with back of spoon. Sprinkle breadcrumbs on top and bake at 350° F for about an hour till top is golden brown.

 

Marzipan and Chocolate Ice Cream

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When I was a kid, my parents had some strange ideas about how one caught a cold. These ideas weren’t just unique to my parents. Everyone thought them true and from what I can see when I visit my family now, many people still believe them. For example, if you take a shower and wash your hair, you should never walk outside with your hair wet during the winter, because you will catch a cold. You also must always make sure to cover your neck with a scarf when it’s cold, because otherwise you’ll catch a cold. You must never, ever drink refrigerated water in the winter, because you’ll…well, you get the idea. Never mind that winter temperatures only got down to the upper 40s and lower 50s.

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Basically, the thought is that there are two things central to getting sick with a cold: cold temperatures (stay away from them) and your throat (keep it warm and covered). This combination created a particularly nasty villain in the fight against colds: ice cream in the winter. Which is why when I was a kid, there was no ice cream anywhere to be found outside the summer months. No ice cream shops, no ice cream trucks, no ice cream in grocery stores.

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Come summer, the two main providers of ice cream on the island would open their stores. For many years there were only four flavors: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and rose. Then at some point, someone imported a brand of Italian gelato called Pahit Ice and from that point on we had all kinds of flavors and flavor combinations available to us. My and my sister’s favorite was chocolate hazelnut. My mom’s was always stracciatella: vanilla ice cream with chocolate chunks. My dad gravitated towards fruit flavors, like prickly pear or passion fruit.

There was never a marzipan and chocolate flavor, though. Which is strange, given that marzipan features prominently in our cuisine. So, here’s a recipe for a great version of it. It features a chopped up bar of the insanely addictive Ritter Sport dark chocolate with marzipan. If you can’t find it, just substitute with your favorite milk or dark chocolate.

Just remember. Enjoy your ice cream while it’s summer, because once the winter comes, you risk getting sick with a nasty cold if you indulge in it.

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Marzipan and Chocolate Ice Cream – Adapted from Love and Olive Oil

Ingredients:

5 egg yolks
7 ounces almond paste, crumbled or cut into large chunks
2/3 cup sugar, divided
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 Ritter Sport Dark Chocolate with Marzipan, coarsely chopped

Directions:

Place a fine mesh sieve over the top of a medium sized bowl. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, with an electric mixer, beat egg yolks, 1/3 cup sugar, and almond paste together until smooth, about 2 minutes.

In a saucepan, combine cream, milk, remaining 1/3 cup sugar, and salt. Cook gently over medium heat, stirring regularly, until sugar is dissolved and mixture just starts to steam (small bubbles will start to form around the edges, but do not let it boil). Remove from heat.

Slowly whisk some of the warm cream mixture into the egg yolk mixture, 1/3 cup at a time, until about half of the cream mixture has been incorporated and mixture is warm to the touch.

Pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan, while whisking, and return to medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens slightly and coats the back of a spoon, about 5 to 7 minutes, or until it reaches approximately 165 to 170ºF. Do not let it boil. Pour mixture through sieve into medium sized bowl, discarding any solids. Let mixture cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate until completely cool, at least 3 hours or overnight if possible.

Churn ice cream in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. Add the chopped chocolate bar just before ice cream finishes being churned. Serve immediately (it will have the consistency of soft serve ice cream) or put ice cream in freezer container and freeze.

 

Black Sesame Carrot Cake

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It’s a rainy July 4th today in New York city. I’m not even sure that the fireworks will take place. But it doesn’t matter. In many other places in the U.S., from big cities to small towns, people are grilling hot dogs, drinking beer, and watching fireworks displays. There are some in this country that find this type of celebration for the country’s independence as crass and vulgar. They make fun of it in blog posts and op-eds. But I don’t think you can truly appreciate the beauty of the American tradition of July 4th celebrations unless you grew up somewhere else, in one of the many countries that celebrate their independence days with military parades and brutal war commemorations.

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I grew up in such a country. Independence day was never a day for celebrations, picnics, and fireworks, even though it was always in the spring, when the green fields are resplendent with red poppies and the weather is mild. Instead, there was always a military parade, the most important topic of conversation being what types of missiles were displayed and whether the new tanks that had been rumored to have been purchased would be shown. The point was always the celebration of vanquishing one’s enemy, as it is for pretty much all military parades.

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Contrast that with July 4th fireworks displays and gatherings with friends and family where people eat and drink and celebrate what they have, what their free country allows them to enjoy, not who they killed in bloody battles centuries ago. Call me naive but I think that this is how independence days should be celebrated everywhere. After all, isn’t that what independence wars are fought for? Not so that those wars are commemorated in perpetuity by reminding the world that they can be refought with better, newer weapons. But so that future generations can be free to gather together and enjoy a juicy burger, a cold beer, and a spectacle of colorful lights in the sky.

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Black Sesame Carrot Cake – Adapted from Bon Appétit

Ingredients:

1½ cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¾ cup granulated sugar
⅓ cup (packed) light brown sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
1 large egg
¼ cup whole milk
2 teaspoons finely grated peeled ginger
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
3 medium carrots (about 8 oz.), peeled, coarsely grated
2 tablespoons black sesame seeds

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350°. Lightly grease a 8×4” loaf pan with vegetable oil. Whisk flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a medium bowl.

Whisk granulated sugar, brown sugar, oil, egg, milk, ginger, and vanilla in a large bowl. Gradually whisk in dry ingredients, then fold in carrots (be careful not to overmix). Scrape batter into prepared pan; smooth top and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake cake until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 65-70 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack and let cake cool completely in pan before turning out.

Cake can be made 3 days ahead. Store wrapped tightly at room temperature.

Caramelized Tomato Tarte Tatin

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I’m back after a three-week hiatus from the blog. I was abroad, first back home visiting my family and then for ten days in France, mainly in Paris, with a two-day escape to the Bay of Somme. Here are a few odds and ends from the trip:

    • Parisians seem to follow New York politics more than New Yorkers. On multiple occasions, we were asked about our opinion of the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, and about how he was doing.
    • You know you have great friends when they surprise you with a birthday dinner at Septime, an incredibly tough-to-get-a-reservation restaurant in Paris that is all the rage among both the French and Americans. How tough is it to get a reservation? They accept them only three weeks in advance and our friend called 22 times in a row (!) as soon as reservations opened until she luckily got an answer. It was well worth it. The meal was fantastic, with fresh ingredients, minimally prepared, letting them shine on the plate.
    • French restaurants are making a great comeback. Yes, it’s still a crapshoot if you just duck into any corner bistro, where you are still likely to get food that was prepared in a processing facility, prepackaged, frozen, and then reheated in the microwave of the restaurant. But new places, like Septime, are rejuvenating the Paris food scene. Our new discovery: Le Cotte Rôti (1 Rue de Cotte) in the 12th arrondissement. An unassuming restaurant next to the Marché d’Aligre where we had a three course meal for 39 euros that left us gasping with excitement.
    • The Bay of Somme is a spectacular, huge bay in Normandie in the English Channel, that empties daily during low tide. It goes from a vast expanse of water, to a desert-like land that you can walk on for a few hours until the water returns. Just know that if you go towards the end where the old concrete german bunker is lying on its side, like a giant alien spaceship that crash-landed decades ago, you will find yourself shin-deep in black silt that is sticky and stinky. By the time we realized it, we were well in the middle of it and had no choice but to walk through it to get to the other end. I can still smell the putrid odor.

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So, in honor of our trip to Paris, where we had the most amazing weather we have ever witnessed in France, I give you today a more savory version of the famous tarte tatin. The dessert is traditionally made with apples that are cooked in caramel and sit on a bed of puff pastry. This version uses tomatoes. It makes a great appetizer or a light summer meal, paired with some good cheese, a green salad, and a glass of ice cold rosé.

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Caramelized Tomato Tarte Tatin - From The New York Times

Ingredients:

1 14-ounce package all-butter puff pastry
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 red onions, halved and thinly sliced
1/4 cup plus a pinch of sugar
1/2 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1/4 cup chopped pitted Kalamata olives
1 1/2 pints (about 1 pound) cherry or grape tomatoes; a mix of colors is nice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste.

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 425° F. Unfold puff pastry sheet and cut into a 10-inch round; chill, covered, until ready to use.

2. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and a pinch of sugar and cook, stirring, until onions are golden and caramelized, 15 to 20 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons water and let cook off, scraping brown bits from bottom of pan. Transfer onions to a bowl.

3. In a clean, ovenproof 9-inch skillet, combine 1/4 cup sugar and 3 tablespoons water. Cook over medium heat, swirling pan gently (do not stir) until sugar melts and turns amber, 5 to 10 minutes. Add vinegar and swirl gently.

4. Sprinkle olives over caramel. Scatter tomatoes over olives, then sprinkle onions on. Season with thyme leaves, salt and pepper. Top with puff pastry round, tucking edges into pan. Cut several long vents in top of pastry.

5. Bake tart until crust is puffed and golden, about 30 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes, then run a knife around pastry to loosen it from pan, and flip tart out onto a serving platter. Cut into wedges and serve immediately.