Wednesday, July 14, 2010


I can't spend my summers in the French countryside, but at least my garden lets me eat like I'm there. The garden stars have finally aligned to give me all the critical ingredients for one of our favorite summertime dinners, a French tian. Tian is just a fancy way to say a baked vegetable casserole. Larousse Gastronomique officially defines it as "an earthenware ovenproof dish from Provence, square or rectangular, with slightly raised edges". I live with a Minnesotan. A hotdish by any other name is still a hotdish.

My favorite version of tian has a base layer of sauteed onions, topped by a layer of potatoes, tomatoes and zucchini. The whole thing is redolent of thyme and basil and gets pretty juicy, especially if you are cooking with freshly picked garden produce. So have a baguette handy for sopping up the goodness. If the thought of a casserole in the middle of summer makes you wilt, never fear. Make this early in the day, in the cool of the morning. Drink an iced coffee to combat the kitchen heat. Then leave this on the counter and come home to a delicious room temperature dinner. Somehow this becomes much tastier after sitting out on the counter for ten hours, just how day-old soup or stew tastes more complex and rich.

With this on hand, I can crack open a bottle of rose and pretend I am in Provence, eating at a stone table with fields of lavender in the distance. Of course the insistent throb of music on car speakers and the grating melody of ice cream trucks remind me emphatically that I am on the west side of Chicago -- but the smell and taste of this simple dish are as close as I can get to an airplane ticket out of this hot, loud city.

Provencal Tian
(adapted from Ina Garten's Barefoot in Paris)

Olive oil
2 large onions, sliced into thick rounds
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 pound of potatoes, unpeeled, sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds
1 pound of zucchini, sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds
1 pound of tomatoes, sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds (or just halve cherry tomatoes)
1 bunch of basil
salt and pepper
1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves
2 ounces of gruyere or parmigianno cheese, grated (optional if you want this vegan)

1. Preheat oven to 375. Lightly oil a 9x13 baking dish.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large saute pan, and cook the onions over medium-low heat until translucent but not brown. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Spread the onion evenly over the bottom of the baking dish.

3. Layer the potatoes, zucchini and tomatoes over the onions in one layer, fitting them tightly. I like to make long stripes of alternating vegetables. You could also do concentric circles. Tuck the basil leaves among the vegetables. Sprinkle with a generous amount of salt, pepper, and the thyme leaves and then give everything a good drizzle of olive oil. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for 40 minutes.

4. Take off the foil, sprinkle with the cheese and bake, uncovered, for another 30 minutes, or until well browned. Serve warm or room temperature.

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