I’m warning you right from the start. This is not a post where I tell you what a beautifully delicious recipe this vegetable tian is. Nope. That’s not going to happen this time. But not for the reasons you think.
First, a description.
A tian is both a type of cookware and a dish. The cookware part is usually earthenware, a shallow baking dish or casserole, often from artisans in Provence. The dish that is cooked in it, and also bears the same name, is simply layered ingredients (most often vegetables with lots and lots of garlic), drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with fleur de sel and black pepper, and roasted in the oven. It couldn’t be simpler.
But oh, is it good! A vegetable tian is a sort of melting pot of flavors and textures that takes full advantage of the bounty of fresh summer vegetables. You can layer just about any vegetable that you like or that you have leftover in the fridge – tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, summer squashes, eggplant, etc. Even meats could find their place in a tian, though that is not something you see very often. It is an easy dish to create that truly tastes like summer.
I don’t usually make tian when I am in the US, because I eat it so often during our summers in France, that I crave different things once I am back home. But I didn’t spend a lot of time in Europe this year, and so I guess I didn’t get my fill. I was craving it, hard, which is why I decided to make it for you here.
Here’s the problem: I was very excited to make it, but then I didn’t actually like eating it. Nor my son (but that’s normal, he barely eats vegetables). The color was great, the texture was right, the flavors blended well… and my husband liked it and ate as much as he could. But it didn’t sing to me, it simply didn’t satisfy me as I thought it would. And I’m kind of a hedonist. I don’t eat things that don’t satisfy.
I couldn’t figure out why I suddenly did not like tian. And then it dawned on me: sometimes, when you are used to eating certain dishes in certain places, they don’t quite taste the same when you eat them elsewhere.
When I am in the south of France, for example, tian is one of my very favorite dishes to eat. But now that I am back in California, its magic is pretty much lost on me.
This has happened to me before, so I should have known.
You see, every time I go to Madagascar (the island where I grew up), I always bring back the exotic fruit jams that I adore when I am there – passionfruit, guava, lychee, etc. And on my first breakfast back home, I really, really, look forward to having them. I make some tea, I excitedly grill some toast and then I spread some butter and a little of my amazingly-exotic-and-brought-from-very-far jam on it. Fail. I take a second bite. Fail again. It just doesn’t taste as I remember. So, every time, I look at the label and wonder “did I buy the wrong one? Is it expired?” but no, it’s never either wrong or expired. It’s just that the place, the people, are missing. The ritual of how I ate it when I was there simply cannot be replicated, and so it leaves me wanting.
Same with this tian, which I probably won’t be making again for a long time.
That’s because food is so much more than nourishment, or nicely executed instructions for specific ingredients. It colors our memory of space and time, and infuses every bite with strong emotional traces of the moments we lived when we ate it (remember Proust and his madeleines?) Sometimes those emotions don’t transform the experience of the food so much that it can’t be enjoyed anywhere else, but sometimes it does.
This does not mean that my disappointment with this dish should stop you from making it. Just because, for me, this dish has become so intertwined with memories of people and places that I can’t eat it outside of France doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a try. I am sure you will enjoy it — as did my husband. And why shouldn’t he? A tian is a beautiful thing, it really is. I’m just warning you that if you have had it in Provence or anywhere else that you are particularly fond of, then you just might be disappointed.
And if that happens, don’t come back here to blame me. It won’t be my fault. I warned you.
Love and health!
- 3 large heirloom tomatoes, finely sliced
- 3 large red bell peppers, center vein and seeds removed, finely sliced
- 3 large yellow bell peppers, center vein and seeds removed, finely sliced
- 1 large eggplant, top removed, finely sliced
- 3 zucchini, ends removed, finely sliced lengthwise
- 8 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/3 cup black olives, pitted, finely chopped
- 1 cup basil, finely chopped
- olive oil
- fleur de sel, or sea salt
- black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Arrange the vegetable slices in layers on a large baking dish, adding fleur de sel, black pepper, and some of the chopped garlic in between the layers. Top with any leftover garlic and chopped olives.
- Bake in the oven until the vegetables are cooked, about 35-45 minutes, depending on the thickness of the slices.
- Sprinkle with chopped basil. Drizzle on a little olive oil.
- Serve immediately.