something out of nothing: provençal vegetable tian

i've been thinking a lot lately about how to sum up my approach to food.  chris lee calls it "cooking from weeds," i call it something out of nothing--using what's at hand, even what you didn't know you had in the back of the freezer, the corner of the garden, or lost in the pantry to make a meal.  that, and a careful attunement to the seasons, to your local geography, and to the traditions in kitchens near and far pretty much comprise everything i think you need to cook really delicious food, really simply.

i'm not saying it's easy.  being a good cook, like being a good anything, takes practice, patience, and presence.  but it's simple.  stick with it, and you'll get it a lot sooner than you think.

with that in mind, i'm going to start writing more about food here.  more recipes, more stories about how to put together a meal, and hopefully, more nice pictures.  let's start here with this lovely eggplant, zucchini, and tomato tian i made last week.

tian, like cassoulet, is the name for both the earthenware dish and the particular food that's cooked in it.  a true tian dish is a shallow, rectangular terra cotta dish into which a mixture of summer vegetables is layered, and then baked until caramelized, sweet and soft.

whereas a gratin is comprised of sliced vegetables (often potatoes) layered horizontally and then baked, the vegetables in a tian are shingled almost vertically, at about a sixty degree angle.

a classic tian starts with a base of sweated onions, and then alternating layers of eggplant, zucchini, and tomato are assembled onto it.  torn leaves of basil and paper-thin slices of garlic, as well as abundant salt, find their way into the dish before it's doused with a healthy dose of good olive oil and sent into a hot oven.

last week i found myself in a friend's kitchen, where she'd started stockpiling ripe early-girl tomatoes from the garden.  she was drowning in them, unsure of how to use them all up, so over the course of a few days i made swift work of scores of tomatoes--in sauce, salad, and this tian--so that by the time i left she was ready to face the plant and harvest another round to try her own hand at some tomato sauce.

we took a trip to the farmer's market, where i picked up:
3 medium italian eggplants
4 medium zucchini
3 medium red onions
1 bunch basil

in her pantry, i found:
good olive oil
1 head garlic

from the garden, i used:
about 10 early girl tomatoes (or, about 5 heirloom tomatoes)

preheat oven to 400°F.

sliced and brown the onions with olive oil and salt, then place them into the bottom of a 9x13" (or thereabouts) earthenware or pyrex dish.

slice the eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes into 1/4-1/2" slices.  it doesn't matter which thickness you decide upon, as long as you're consistent throughout.

pick the basil leaves.

peel the garlic and slice it.

season the sliced vegetables with salt, then layer into the dish at about a 60° angle, in shingled rows.  after every other row, tuck in a few torn basil leaves.  after every third row, tuck in a few slices of garlic.  make sure neither the basil nor the garlic is exposed to prevent it from burning.

when you get to the end of the dish, stick your hand flat against the final layer of vegetables and scoot it in tightly to compact the tian, then continue building.  do it again when you get to the end, until the dish is tightly packed with layers of vegetables.

drizzle generously with olive oil, and another pinch of salt for good luck, and then throw it into the oven, on a low-ish rack.

after about 20 minutes, take a look,  if it looks dry on top, add some more oil.  use a spatula to compress the vegetables down and let any dry parts (particularly dry eggplant) soak up some of the bubbling juices.

rotate the pan if it looks like it needs it.

keep cooking, and checking, and compressing with the spatula, until the juices have been released and then reabsorbed and reduced, and all of the vegetables are thoroughly cooked and caramelized.  if you cut the pieces into fatties like i did here, it can take about 90 minutes.  hey, i never said this was gonna be quick.

check it with a skewer if you're not sure it's done.  the eggplant should absolutely not resist in any way.

pull the finished tian out of the oven and let it rest for about 10 minutes before serving.  eat it with bread, fish, and a glass of rosé and call it a day.


  1. love the post, and the tian. thanks, Samin!

  2. it was so fun and we learned so much from you! we've made two more batches of your lovely sauce and my mom is still showing off the photos of the tian you made.