I re-watched the end of Ratatouille last night, the movie that so wonderfully inspired so many to recreate a Thomas-Keller-cum-Remy-the-Rat-inspired interpretation of the French classic at home.
The movie that also, however inadvertently, cast a shadow over two already-existing Provencal staples: the real Ratatouille, a warm autumnal stew, and Tian, the dish little Remy actually makes at the end of the Pixar classic. Tian shares the same ingredients with Ratatouille but, layered and baked in its namesake—flat earthenware—it could not taste more different. With neither stewing nor baking quantitatively better than the other, these dishes contrast one another in a true testament to the transformational powers of cooking technique.
In Ratatouille, each component is cared for individually and then combined. Left to stew, the flavors meld. In the end, they dance across your palate. A sweet zucchini, an earthy eggplant, a bright pepper—all held together by the rich tomato sauce, you’re left to the whims of the stew. It’s a disservice to the nature of the dish to target a bite with just zucchini or avoid the peppers. Ratatouille is a whole—best eaten in heaping, willing spoonfuls.
While Tian has all the same ingredients as Ratatouille, I found it has one additional, crucial element: choice. This was made clear as I cooked it alongside my Provencal neighbor, Geneveive, just days after we’d made Ratatouille together. While she floated through Ratatouille like a book she’d read a thousand times over, the Tian process was ripe with pauses and what-ifs. Shall we keep the veggies in their own rows, or alternate them? We can layer them horizontally or vertically, what do you prefer? We could salt the zucchini, but it might need liquid, so perhaps we won’t. I think we won’t use tomato paste.
The theme of choice continues at the dinner table. With each thin slice—soft on the bottom and crisped on top—you are free to mix-and-match. Try the zucchini alone, then layer with eggplant, then add onion, with your next bite, fit a bit of pepper on there. In a completely separate context, I learned the word espiègle from Geneveive while we were cooking. "Playful." From start to finish, this is exactly what Tian allows you to be.
Tian (serves 3-4)
Time: 1-1.5 hours
With all the fresh basil and parsley, this is a dish that fills your kitchen with warm, enticing aromas as it bakes. A great recipe if you want to get your guests excited to eat!
For the base
2 large zucchini
2 yellow onions
2 red peppers
1 1/2tsp Kosher salt
For the topping
1/4c fresh basil
1/2c fresh parsley
2 large garlic cloves
1/2 olive oil
Large pinch Kosher salt
1. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees and brush a medium-sized baking dish with olive oil (to be very traditional, it should be stone or earthenware).
2. Peel eggplant and zucchini. Slice all vegetables as thinly as possible, about 1/8 inch.
3. Arrange slices vertically . You can alternate veggies for a more aesthetically complex finish, or arrange them in individual rows. The most important thing is that they are packed tightly. If you think you can’t fit another slice, try anyway.
4. Sprinkle evenly with seasonings.
5. Roughly chop tomato and garlic and toss into blender with parsley, basil, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Blend until combined.
6. Pour sauce evenly over vegetables. If any veggies are peaking through and look dry, drizzle with a bit more olive oil.
7. Cover with tin foil and bake for 40 minutes. Remove tin foil and bake for another 20 minutes minutes. Switch to broil setting and broil until bubbly and browned on top. Remove from oven, top with fresh parsley, fresh basil, and a sprinkle of Kosher salt.
8. Serve warm with crispy potatoes.