When you think of casseroles, do the words elegant and beautiful come to your mind? Probably not. Casseroles have many admirable qualities, but they are of the plainer, stodgier sort. Unless, that is, they are French.
The French have an elegant answer to the homey casserole, and it's the Provençal tian. This musical word signifies a gratin, French-style.
A tian doesn't have too much to set it apart from its plainer cousins, but all the variations I've tried have had just an edge of sophistication, a dash of something special. Take this one, for instance, which I learned from Rosa Jackson, a food writer and teacher in Nice, France. It starts with a base of creamy, Parmesan-flecked orange squash, and bakes up with a green crust of garlicky herbed bread crumbs. You can practically taste the South of France: Olive oil, sun-kissed vegetables, garlic and rosemary. This is how the French do casseroles.
I took a cooking class with Rosa a few years ago, and it happened to be just as I was starting to write a cookbook about casseroles. I was looking for fresh inspiration, and I found it in this delicious tian.
It is a little more involved than many of the other casseroles I make. You chop and cook the butternut squash (or pumpkin, or Red Kuri squash — my favorite) until it is soft. Then mash it up with a little parboiled rice to soak up any extra moisture, plus Parmesan and eggs. The topping is a scrumptious Provençal bread crumb mix of parsley, rosemary, olive oil, and garlic. Blended in the food processor, the crumbs turn bright green and make a delightfully colorful topping for the orange squash below.
But the results are so worth it. The squash is creamy yet firm, savory from Parmesan and a traditional French touch of nutmeg. Spooning through you get the taste of all those toasty, garlicky herb and crumbs, then the creamy squash below. It's substantial enough to be a main dish, accompanied by nothing more than a good salad. But it's also a pleasant side dish for chicken, duck, and pork — it sits elegantly on nearly any table, and that's just not something you can say about every casserole. Leave it to the French.
Butternut Squash Tian with Herbed Bread CrumbsRecipe adapted from Rosa Jackson. Serves 4
2 to 2 1/2-pound whole butternut squash
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus additional for drizzling
1/4 cup short-grain or arborio rice
2 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 large eggs
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg
Provencal breadcrumbs (recipe below)
Heat the oven to 375°F and lightly grease a 1 1/2 to 2-quart baking dish (such as a deep pie dish) with olive oil.
Peel and slice the butternut squash. You should have 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds prepared squash flesh. Heat the olive oil in a deep sauté pan over medium heat. Cook the squash in the olive oil with a sprinkling of salt until it softens and starts to disintegrate, about 20 to 25 minutes. Cover for most of the cooking time to speed the process.
While the squash is cooking, heat a small saucepan of salted water over high heat. When it is boiling, add the rice. Cook for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside.
Place the cooked pumpkin in a large bowl and combine with the rice, Parmesan, about 1/2 teaspoon salt, and generous dashes of pepper and nutmeg. When it has cooled slightly, mix in the eggs quickly so that they don't scramble. The mixture may seem on the liquid side, but this is fine.
Pour it into the prepared gratin dish, top with the herbed bread crumbs (recipe below) and a generous drizzle of olive oil. (If desired, you can prepare to this point, cover and refrigerate for up to two days. When ready to serve, bake as directed below.)
Bake for 35 minutes or until slightly toasted on top and set. Serve warm.
This recipe doubles very well; I use a 4-pound squash and bake the tian in a 9x13-inch casserole dish.
Herbed Bread Crumbs
1 cup dried bread crumbs
1 big handful flat leaf parsley, leaves only
Leaves from 3 to 4 sprigs of thyme or rosemary
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
In a food processor, blend together all the ingredients except the olive oil. Add the olive oil and blend until the breadcrumbs are soft and green, adding a little more oil if necessary. Season well with salt and pepper.
Keep airtight in the refrigerator or freezer (in a plastic bag or jar) until you need them.
(Images: Faith Durand)