ligurian vegetable tart (& muʿajanat genealogies)

I made this dish a while back; at the time, I was in possession of an enormous bag of kale and in search of a one-dish recipe that could feed me for several days. I happened upon a recipe for a Ligurian vegetarian tart in Susan McKenna Grant’s Piano Piano Pieno (whose recipes I cook here so often it’s becoming a cliche – but they’re always simple, delicious, and foolproof, so why stop?). She writes that there are many variations to this tart, but the most common is a vegetarian version filled with greens and cheese.

I figured kale would do just fine. While I was cooking, I couldn’t help thinking about muajanat – savory pastries from the Bilad al-Sham (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan) that are often stuffed with spinach greens – and resemble miniature versions of the Ligurian tart. When I lived in Amman, there was a bakery right on my block that made really wonderful muajanat: just the thing for rushed mornings or an afternoon snack.

My guess is that given Liguria’s coastal location and Genoa’s history as a trading power throughout the Mediterranean, this isn’t an accident: I began to suspect that the two have some common genealogies in medieval Arabic cookery…

Ligurian Vegetable Tart
adapted from Susan McKenna Grant’s Piano Piano Pieno

For one hearty tart, you will need:

For the dough:
2 cups flour
2/3 cup water
3 tablespoons olive oil
Pinch of salt

For the filling:
750 g/1 2/3 lbs. dark leafy greens of your choice
1 onion, chopped finely
Handful of mushrooms, chopped (not in original, but I had them on hand and figured they couldn’t hurt)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
4 oz. ricotta cheese, drained (note: I was out of ricotta and so I substituted plain Greek yogurt instead)
Herbs: the original recipe calls for fresh herbs, chopped; I only had basil on hand so I threw in a generous amount of (dried) zaatar as well
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper

First, mix all the dough ingredients together until a dough forms; don’t worry about kneading it too much. Divide into two separate balls, one a little larger than the other. Let them sit quietly, and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Next, the filling: steam the greens well and squeeze out their extra water (kale might take a little extra massaging). Once this is done, chop chop chop them up.

Saute the onions in olive oil on medium low heat in a large pan, and once they turn translucent, add in the mushrooms. After 5-7 minutes, throw in the greens as well, and cook until everything is softened and tender.

Meanwhile, blend the herbs and spices in with the eggs. When the veggies are cooked, mix all the filling ingredients together.

To assemble the tart, roll out the larger piece of dough and place it in an oiled baking pan or round baking sheet. Spoon the filling onto it (try to keep it piled in the middle, not too far from the edges, at least at first). Next, roll out the other piece of dough and layer it on top. You should be able to fold over the edges of the bottom piece of dough on top of the top layer’s edges and pinch to seal.

Brush the whole thing with a little olive oil, and then use a knife to poke some vents for steam to escape.

Bake for 10 minutes then reduce the heat to 350 degrees F and bake another 25 minutes or so. As Grant writes, “the tart is done when the crust begins to turn golden and the delicious aroma fills your kitchen.”

She recommends flipping the tart out onto a clean towel, then turning it right side up but keeping it wrapped in the towel for 10 minutes or so before placing it on a cooling rack (this helps keep the crust from getting too hard).

So what about the Arab savory pastry piece of the puzzle?

Genoa was a sea power and a key player in trade with the Eastern Mediterranean (and points east) as well as the Crusades, so it’s reasonable to assume that some of its food traditions might have something in common with those of the southern shores of the Mediterranean. Grant notes that other Ligurian tart variations include one filled with rice and another that is made with pine nuts and raisins. Arab cuisine is no stranger to putting raisins in savory dishes and stuffing things with rice, for sure, but I wondered if there were even more specific dishes along the lines of these Ligurian tarts that crop up in Middle Eastern or North African cookery.

Browsing through Lilia Zaouali’s Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World, two recipes caught my eye, both from the 13th century Cairene cookbook I’ve blogged about before. One is a cheese pastry, or mujabbana, which calls for mixing cheese, eggs, and herbs and spices, and layering these between two layers of dough (just as indicated above, with the Ligurian pastry). The second isn’t actually a tart, just a cake with cheese and egg that’s quite similar to the mujabbana without the pastry shell.

What I find most interesting about the latter was Zaouali’s note that the dish is often attributed to a Sicilian recipe, because of substantial waves of immigration from Italy to Tunisia in the 19th and 20th centuries. But of course, as she points out, if the recipe shows up in a North African cookbook in the 13th century, it would seem that its genealogy has significantly older roots than that in Arab cookery itself. I would need to dig a bit more into Italian (or specifically, Genoese or Ligurian) cuisine during the medieval period to really hypothesize about who borrowed from whom. But it seems plausible to me that the basic model of layering eggs and cheese with herbs in a simple savory pastry might have crossed the Mediterranean at some point in the late medieval or early modern period and been spruced up with the local wild greens and herbs of the Ligurian countryside.

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