Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Late Summer Vegetable Tian

Days are getting shorter here on the north coast. The air is cooler and there's a snap in the air that portends the coming of autumn. Growing up in the Sacramento Valley, the change of seasons from summer to autumn was much more pronounced. Evenings and early mornings were clear and cool and I could smell the sharp, earthy scent of fallen leaves composting on the ground. The color of the autumn sunlight was also different, casting longer shadows of shades of soft gold rather than the harsher hot white of summer. And even though the change is more subtle where I live now, I feel it nonetheless, and somehow lean into it, welcoming the beginning of shorter days, cozy nights with warm fires and hot, warming food.

End of summer organic tomatoes and sweet white corn are abundant right now in our markets, as well as the first local (inland) eggplants with their shiny, purple-black skins. I wanted them all. In one dish. Layered. With the flavors of each vegetable melting into the next, like a French tian. What is a tian? According to my French cookbooks, it's a dish, mainly of vegetables, created in layers and baked to a glorious, crusty goodness. It can contain cheese and grains but almost always is topped with bread crumbs. Originating in Provence, a tian is a shallow earthenware casserole as well as the food it contains. Upon doing a google search however, a lovely site called French Gardening dot com specifies a tian as a bowl with a top wider than the bottom, for making dishes like cassoulet. After reading that, I'm not sure which is the real thing, but I'm going with my French cookbooks and French food authority Patricia Wells and trust that the tian is more of a gratin dish.

(Speaking of cassoulet, when we were in the southwest of France last fall, I had the opportunity to indulge myself in this rich bean, sausage and duck dish. Once in Sarlat, ending in a very uncomfortable, sleepless night; the second time being a more enjoyable 2-hour lunch accompanied by a beautiful bottle of local red wine in Carcassonne. For a humorous and educational piece about cassoulet and its origins, I recommend you read this. And as soon as I get my nerve up, I'll make it and post it here.)

Back to my tian. As I've been writing this, I've googled many words to find links for you to peruse at your leisure, and in doing so have found that some of my fellow food bloggers have already posted recipes for vegetable tian or at least a dish using many of the same ingredients. I'm in good company.
Although I've done layers in the past, this time in the interest of time, I cut my vegetables into chunks rather than slices and layered them one on top of the other. This creates a more rustic appearance to the finished dish but it still melts together deliciously. Eaten the next day, it's even better than the first.
1 large sweet onion, peeled, cut in half lengthwise, then crosswise into thin slices, like half-moons
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and chopped fine
2 red bell peppers, seeded and deveined, cut in 1-inch pieces
1 pound mushrooms, sliced
4 ears fresh corn, shucked, silks removed, kernels cut from the cob
3 medium oval eggplant, cut into 1-inch pieces
6 large ripe, red tomatoes, skins removed, cut into chunks
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
6-8 large basil leaves, coarsely chopped
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper (I use Tellicherry)
1 cup seasoned bread crumbs (I use locally made, whole wheat Brio croutons and crush them into crumbs)
Olive oil for the pan
Ovenproof oval or rectangular ceramic or glass dish that will hold all the ingredients

Lightly oil the baking dish (tian) and set aside.
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. When pan is hot, add the onion slices and saute until soft, but not browned. Spoon into the tian and spread over the bottom.
Adding more oil to the skillet as needed, increase the heat to medium high and saute the mushrooms until they are limp. Layer on top of the onions.
Spread the uncooked corn kernels over the mushrooms and sprinkle with the marjoram.
Saute the red peppers next and spread them over the corn.
(As you are building these layers, you can sprinkle a small amount of kosher salt and black pepper over each one.)
Next, adding more oil to the pan, saute the eggplant cubes until they are browned and softened. Spread them over the red pepper layer and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Finally, place all the tomato chunks in the skillet and cook until their juices are released, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and chopped basil and cook until it's aromatic, about 3 minutes more. Pour the tomato mixture over the rest of the layered vegetables.
Sprinkle the bread crumbs over the top of everything and drizzle with a bit of olive oil to moisten.
Cover with foil and bake in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 20 minutes to create a browned crust on top.
Just for fun, here's what we watched as the tian was baking in the oven. Notice the greater pacific fog bank just above the trees? That was over the top of us within the hour.


paz said...

Delicious and beautiful!


Julie said...

Those are some of my absolute favorite vegetables! A tian is one of the many things on my list of to-cooks!

Peter Ryan said...

I just discovered tian's at a local cooking class and talked about my experience as well as the recipe I used. I look forward to trying yours soon. It looks great!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for explaining what a tian is. The taste is wonderful!

Christine said...

Thanks Anon. I'm glad you liked it. I'll be updating this recipe soon.