This week, I had three green-gray Mexican zucchinis hanging around my kitchen counter, getting older every day, wizening slightly in the dry Taos air. We had invited friends for dinner, and I was making chicken thighs with mushrooms in a tarragon-mustard-white wine sauce, to be served over rice. I eyed those calabacitas, trying to figure out how to work them in, if only to avoid throwing them into the compost.
Then it hit me: back in Maine, a few years ago, on a whim, I made a Provençal vegetable dish called a tian. As I recalled, it had zucchini in it. So I decided to make another one as a side dish for our dinner party.
Like all the best French dishes, a tian is a simple assortment of a few ingredients, olive oil and garlic, vegetables, fresh herbs, cheese if you like, arranged in jewel-like coils in a baking dish and put into the oven until it browns. It’s cheap, easy to make, delicious, and it looks much more impressive than it actually is.
Because it’s basically peasant food, a tian is flexible in terms of ingredients. You can use rosemary, oregano, or the French classic, thyme; eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash, and/or potatoes. You can arrange your sliced vegetables on a bed of green beans or onions, or ground meat or fish. There are no hard and fast rules here. It’s just baked vegetables, a sort of constructed version of ratatouille. You can use what you’ve got on hand augmented with whatever you want, and I promise, your tian will be a thing of culinary beauty, guaranteed to impress whoever is lucky enough to eat it.
The one I made consisted of the aforementioned zucchini, along with fresh rosemary, two small, slender eggplants, a robust summer squash, and four ripe, lumpy heirloom tomatoes I also happened to have sitting around. Since I don’t own a traditional tian casserole dish, I used my oblong glass baking dish. The vegetable slices were various sizes instead of uniform discs, but it didn’t matter. It still looked beautiful. I opted for grated Romano cheese on top, but you can use the more traditional Gruyère or Parmesan if you like — any kind of cheese, really.
We live in a small casita, and our kitchen table seats no more than four, so we had invited two guests. I baked the tian before they arrived because it tastes best when it’s warm, not hot. We sat down to dinner, our dogs crowded under the table at our four sets of feet, and we feasted.
There were plenty of leftovers. The re-warmed tian was even better the next night, the vegetables almost melted together, herbaceous and garlicky and cheesy.
3 small or 2 medium zucchini
1 summer squash
3 very ripe tomatoes, plum tomatoes work best
1-2 slender eggplants OR 4 red potatoes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh or dried herbs: rosemary, oregano, or thyme
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/3 cup olive oil plus more to grease the dish
Salt and black pepper
¾ cup grated romano or parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice all the vegetables 1/8 inch thick and arrange them in separate mounds on a large cookie sheet. Salt and pepper them all. Rub olive oil over the bottom and sides of a large, shallow baking dish. Arrange the vegetables in alternate rows or coils, making a neat pattern, until the dish is full. Mix the olive oil, fresh herbs, and garlic and drizzle over the vegetables. Top with the cheese. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the vegetables just start to char. Serve warm or room temperature. A tian makes a great side dish, but it could also be a satisfying main, served with a loaf of crusty bread, olives and cheese and paté, and a green salad.
Kate Christensen is a novelist, memoirist and food writer based in Taos, New Mexico. This essay is the second of a monthly series about French food called Bouffe, written exclusively for Frenchly. Her books, Blue Plate Special, How to Cook a Moose, The Last Cruise and more can be purchased here, on Amazon.
All photos courtesy of the author.