There was always a little static while trying to bring my lo-fi home cooking into a restaurant setting, producing it at restaurant speed and volume, pace and temperature, and getting it back on the plate in such a way that would still remind you of good home cooking. In spite of its stainless-steel countertops and the crew of line cooks in clogs and aprons and scullery caps cranking out the food each night, Prune was always meant to convey the feeling that there was just some gentle older woman back there in heavy stockings and a cardigan who had fixed you a plate from the pots on the stove.
Some aspects of restaurant cooking — rigid requirements around quantity, consistency and hygiene, for example — could take the life out of certain dishes. Roast suckling pig. Apple pie. Spanakopita. You could never very successfully pull off a simple Sunday roast the way you would at home, where you season and brown and then slow-roast the leg of lamb, letting it rest on the counter for almost an hour before you carve it for supper. In restaurant protocol, you would have to rapid-cool, pre-portion and then reheat to order. But speedy and efficient and multitasking cooks, too, could create interference. There was always at least one prep cook who would want to use the razor-sharp mandoline held over a stainless bowl for all his slicing tasks in the name of efficiency and who would leave his heatproof silicone rubber spatula submerged in the beans he was asked to braise while he hustled other prep projects. I was so superstitious that the customer would be able to taste “refrigerator” in the food, or somehow notice the absence of what a good sharp knife’s steel blade against a wooden cutting board brings to the onions, that I would trail the cooks all day, and while they were making a quick trip to the walk-in, I’d swap out their mandoline with a knife and pull the silicone spatula from the beans, leaving a nice wooden spoon in its place, like the ones a nonna uses at home to stir the Sunday sauce.
I learned this zucchini tian — the Provençal vegetable dish named for the earthenware vessel it’s meant to be cooked in — from my late ex-mother-in-law, Alda. She was the Italian nonna of a nearly lost era. She had to fire up the oven in her kitchen in Puglia by getting down on a knee with a box of stick matches, her eggs sat next to the ironing on a sideboard and her refrigerator barely dipped below 50 degrees — as if cold-holding were a kind of gesture, a good intention not always exactingly met. And her tian! So much with so little.
She brought the vegetables home from the market in their waxy paper bags, the vegetables themselves picked from the gardens of the farmers that morning and taken directly to the town square under just a loose cover of burlap — not like here, where everything has to go into a refrigerated truck. She then peeled and sliced the vegetables already warm from the sun and assembled them in layers in her large, dented aluminum pans, baking the tian in the late morning to avoid having the oven on during the blistering part of the afternoon.
The tian sat out resting on the counter, the flavors and juices melding slowly, until lunch, which in that family was always meant to start at 1 but usually never got going until closer to 2. The pan was moved to the table, and then after the meal it went back into the turned-off oven, and that’s where it lived.
I’ve managed to successfully cook this in the restaurant in large volume, allowing the use of the mandoline to shorten the hourslong production of filling full-length hotel pans with layer upon layer of raw zucchini and following the Department of Health regimens around refrigeration. (The dish is easier to cut and portion when cold.) And I’ve even pulled it off in the ultrahigh-wattage, multicamera, kitchen-stadium setting of “Iron Chef America,” when I battled Bobby Flay and the secret ingredient was zucchini. We used cast-iron pans and a blasting convection oven for speed. And we won!
I still have my superstitions about wooden spoons and cutting boards and long, slow resting on the countertop, but the strength of the combination of the ingredients — zucchini and onion with one layer of potato and another of tomato, juicy and waxy and sweet and earthy all at once — is really what makes the dish sing.
Here’s a version that borrows some of the efficiency of a restaurant and a speedy trick from kitchen stadium, and retains all the spirit of Alda and her long, lingering Sunday lunches. By building each layer into a cast-iron pan and starting it on the stovetop as you slice and assemble by hand, you can be sitting out on the terrace in half an hour, visiting with the family while it finishes in the oven. If you were like Alda, you would go pull the laundry off the line — stiff and dry and warm from the Pugliese sun — and have it ironed and folded by noon. With that tian on the table sometime around 2, more or less.