Weeknight cooking generally is pretty utilitarian. It may not be very pretty or impressive, but it usually is tasty and gets the job done.
Which tends to throw everything for a loop on those rare weeknights when something special is needed. Just because you need to feed last minute company on a Wednesday evening doesn't mean you magically have extra time to pull it off. Those are the nights when we need something that is impressive and delicious, as well as easy and speedy.
Easier said than done. But hardly impossible.
It's for nights such as this that I keep a couple packages of puff pastry in the freezer. This versatile dough is delicious, inexpensive and cooks up in minutes. It can be used for desserts or savory dishes, and is pretty much agreeable to any shape you care to fold, mold or cut it into.
Puff pastry is just what the name implies — a pastry-style dough that, because of the layers of fat worked into it, puffs up when baked. The result is a light and delicately crunchy pastry (think croissant).
Most grocers sell puff pastry in the freezer section alongside the phyllo dough, fruits and other pastry items. The most common brand is Pepperidge Farm, which comes as a 17.3-ounce package that contains two sheets of pastry. Each sheet is packed folded into thirds and must be thawed before unfolding.
While there are innumerable ways of transforming puff pastry into wonderful desserts, I prefer to use it as the base of savory tarts. To do this, simply thaw and unfold a sheet of pastry, set it on a lightly oiled baking sheet, then top it with thinly sliced vegetables or meat and bake until puffed and lightly browned.
I recently topped a tart with chopped canned artichoke hearts, fresh thyme, minced garlic and a whole mess of grated Parmesan cheese. I've also done pizza-like versions, topping the pastry with sliced tomatoes, garlic, basil and fresh mozzarella.
As a general rule, it's best to choose toppings that either cook quickly or already are cooked. Puff pastry cooks quickly, so you want to make certain your toppings don't take longer than the pastry.
PUFF PASTRY PISSALADIERE
Start to finish: 25 minutes (10 active)
1 sheet frozen puff pastry (each 17.3-ounce package contains 2 sheets), thawed according to package directions
2 roasted red peppers, drained
2-ounce tin oil-packed anchovy fillets, well drained
Ground black pepper
1/4 cup chopped Kalamata olives
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Heat the oven to 425 F. Lightly coat a baking sheet with cooking spray.
Unfold the thawed sheet of puff pastry and set it on the prepared baking sheet.
Use paper towels to pat dry the roasted red peppers removing as much moisture as possible without mashing the peppers. Cut the peppers into thin strips, then arrange them evenly over the pastry.Comment on this story
Spacing them evenly so as to have enough to cover the tart, arrange the anchovies over the red peppers. Season the tart with black pepper, then sprinkle the chopped olives evenly over the tart. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese evenly over everything.
Bake for 15 minutes, or until the pastry is puffed and browned at the edges and the cheese is melted and lightly browned. Cut into squares and serve warm or room temperature.
Nutrition information per serving: 110 calories; 60 calories from fat (55 percent of total calories); 7 g fat (2.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 15 mg cholesterol; 5 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 1 g sugar; 7 g protein; 710 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Food Editor J.M. Hirsch is author of the cookbook "High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking." Follow him to great eats on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch or email him at jhirsch(at)ap.org.