Butternut Squash, Apple, Caramelized Onion Tian
A tian is basically a layered vegetable casserole, traditionally baked to tenderness in an earthenware dish. This is an elegant example, with no cream or cheese: just pure, intense flavor from the cider, onions, brown butter and apples. The thinly sliced vegetables are arranged in pretty rows to give it an artistic look.
Only the neck of the squash is used to keep the pieces uniform; you’ll find plenty of uses for the rest of the squash, including soups, mashes or purees.
A cast-iron gratin dish is ideal, because it promotes caramelization. But you can use a heatproof glass or ceramic dish; just add a few minutes to the baking time to allow the caramelizing to occur.
Serve with meat or a green vegetable such as beans, brussel sprouts, or a salad.
4 side-dish servings
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for the baking dish
1 cup fresh bread crumbs, from 1 to 2 English muffins
1 tablespoon mixed coarsely chopped fresh sage, rosemary and thyme
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium or 3 small onions, thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
12 ounces peeled butternut squash, neck only (from two 2 1/2-pound squashes)
1 to 2 large Jonagold apples (7 to 8 ounces each)
1/3 cup apple cider
1 teaspoon honey
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Rub a shallow 2-quart or 2-liter oval baking dish with a little butter.
Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in the microwave oven set on LOW or in a small skillet over low heat. Combine the bread crumbs and 1/2 teaspoon of the herb mixture in a small bowl, then add the the melted butter and use your fingers to mix thoroughly, evenly moistening the crumbs.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter with the olive oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions and 1/4 teaspoon of salt and stir well. Cover the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened and translucent, 6 to 7 minutes. Uncover the skillet, increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are golden brown, 7 to 8 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the onions to cool for a few minutes, then spread them on the bottom of the prepared baking dish in an even layer.
Quarter the squash neck lengthwise. Cut the long pieces crosswise into thin slices, about 1/8-inch thick. Peel, quarter and cut the core from the apples. Cut the quarters crosswise into thin slices, about 1/8-inch thick.
Starting at a narrow end of the baking dish, arrange a row of overlapping squash slices across the dish, propping the slices up against the end of the dish at a slight angle as you go. Season the squash with a tiny bit of salt and a sprinkling of the fresh herbs. Next, arrange a row of overlapping apple slices. (You will have to stand them up a bit and lean them against the row of squash.) Season the apples with a tiny bit of salt and a sprinkling of the fresh herbs. Continue arranging alternating rows of squash and apples, seasoning as you go, until the dish is full or until you have used up most of your slices. (You may have to gently push back the rows in order to fit in a few more rows.) Sprinkle any remaining herbs over the whole tian.
Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. After the butter has melted, continue to cook it, swirling the pan occasionally, until the milk solids turn nutty brown. (This can take anywhere from 3 to 6 minutes.) Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the apple cider and honey. Use a flexible spatula or wooden spoon to scrape up any browned milk solids that have stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Drizzle the butter-cider-honey mixture evenly over the tian, taking care to cover as much area as possible. Top the tian with the bread crumb mixture.
Bake for 50 to 55 minutes, until the top is golden brown (there will be a brown ring around the edge of the dish) and the squash and apples are very tender. (Add 5 to 10 minutes to the baking time if using a glass or ceramic baking dish rather than an enameled cast-iron dish.) Let the tian rest for a few minutes, and serve warm.