This butternut squash, apple, and fennel tian is a veritable unicorn: it's not only beautiful and fun to make, it's an excellent option for anyone looking for a gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan side dish.
I have a lot of friends with dietary restrictions, and I'm always happy to accommodate them. But it can sometimes be a challenge to come up with dishes that meet all of my friends' needs that also appeal to everyone else. This butternut squash, apple, and fennel tian does all of that and more...it's a gluten free, dairy free, vegan side dish that's also beautiful, delicious, and fun to make!
The inspiration for this tian came way back in summer, when I discovered the magic of tians. A tian is named after the vessel that it is traditionally cooked in, which is a round earthenware dish that can go from oven to table. It consists of perfectly sliced and beautifully layered vegetables that are roasted simply with olive oil and herbs. It’s a classically simple French country dish, one that lets the ingredients shine without a lot of fuss.
Over the summer I largely drew from my small kitchen garden for the ingredients of my tians: tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplant. But my garden bounty eventually faded, so I turned to seasonal vegetables for my latest recipe. I tried a bunch of different combinations, and the first time I tried this one, I *accidentally* ate the whole thing in a day. That’s how I knew I had a winner. The fact that it makes a delicious vegan side dish was just a bonus!
What is a tian?
You do not need to hunt down an actual tian dish to make this recipe! In fact, I have yet to find one. Most of my summer tians were made in my favorite 7X10 rectangular ceramic baking dish from Mason Cash. Your tian can be architecturally beautiful in whatever dish you choose to make it in, from a 9X13 Pyrex to a 10 or 12-inch cast iron skillet.
The other thing about tians is that they are incredibly healthy. They typically only consist of vegetables, olive oil, salt and pepper, and herbs. You can’t get much healthier than that! I’ve dressed this one up for the holiday with some walnuts and rosemary, but this tian is delicious even without the nuts. And with the natural sweetness of the caramelized shallots, roasted butternut squash, and apples, it's the perfect vegan side dish to accommodate a variety of dietary needs and preferences.
Working with fennel bulbs
Not everyone has experience with fennel bulbs. You might be more familiar with fennel seeds, which give that extra-something to Italian sausage, but the vegetable version of fennel has a much lighter, brighter flavor. It is faintly reminiscent of black licorice, but don’t let that put you off, because when it’s cooked, it mellows dramatically into something that is beautifully savory, and the perfect accent to the other ingredients in this tian.
When buying fennel bulbs, look for bright white, firm bulbs with no bruising on the outside layer. If the bulb still has its stems, make sure they are still crisp, and check to see that the leaves are still bright and firm. Once you get it home, it will only keep for 3-5 days, so be sure to buy it close to when you need to use it.
Tips for a perfect butternut squash, apple, and fennel tian
- For uniform half-moon slices of butternut squash, buy one with a long neck and use just the neck. Save the bottom bulbous part of the squash for another use. Roasted cubes of butternut squash make a great salad ingredient...just saying.
- I recommend using tart or sweet-tart baking apples in this tian, since they will hold up better during the roasting process, and eating apples can get unpleasantly sweet and mushy when baked. I’ve been using an heirloom variety called Arkansas Black (which are CRAZY delicious, if you can find them), but Jonathan apples or Pink Lady apples work great too. A dark red apple gives this dish extra color and looks gorgeous next to the orange squash and the green fennel.
- Make your slices of fennel, squash, and apple as uniformly thick as possible, since the ingredients will all cook at about the same rate.
- The fennel slices can come apart a bit during the layering process, so I often layer in the squash and apples loosely, then tuck the fennel in between the slices afterward. That helps pack the veggies in tightly enough for the tian to cook properly.
Prep ahead and storage
It’s tough to assemble this too far ahead because the apples will brown, but you can certainly get a head start by slicing the shallots, the butternut squash, and the fennel and having everything ready to go, then slice the apples right before you assemble your tian. I have also successfully partially cooked a tian for 30 minutes, let it cool for 10-15 minutes, transported it to wherever we were having dinner, and finished it off in our host’s oven.
Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 4-5 days.
Butternut Squash, Apple, and Fennel Tian
- 1 butternut squash with a long neck (approximately 2.5-3 pounds)
- 2 large fennel bulbs
- 2 large red baking apples (Jonathan or other tart baking apple)
- 3 large shallots
- ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided plus 1 teaspoon for the topping
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¾ cup walnuts, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Cut off and peel the long neck of the butternut squash. Cut it in half lengthwise, then slice each half crosswise into ¼ inch half-moon slices. Reserve the lower part of the squash for another use.
- Cut off and discard the tops of the fennel bulbs and trim the bottoms. Remove any wilted outer layers.
- Cut each fennel bulb in half lengthwise (see photo), then slice each half lengthwise into ¼ inch half-moon slices. Try to keep the halves stacked together as much as possible to keep the layers from separating within the slices.
- Quarter the apples lengthwise and remove the cores. Slice each quarter lengthwise into ¼ inch half-moon-ish slices. Discard the final slice of each quarter that is mostly peel.
- Peel and thinly slice the shallots crosswise. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium low heat. Add the shallots and sauté for 6-8 minutes, until they are soft and the color begins to deepen. Turn down the heat as needed to prevent browning.
- Transfer the cooked shallots to the bottom of your tian dish and spread them out. I like to use a rectangular ceramic baking dish (I have a 7"X10" dish that this fits in beautifully in two rows), but tians are also beautiful in round or oval dishes, such as a 12-inch cast iron skillet. Allow the shallots to cool for 5 minutes.
Assemble the tian
- Build your tian on top of the shallots by alternating the squash and apple slices, standing up on their straight edge around the edge of the pan, tightly enough to stand up but loosely enough to add the fennel slices.
- Work in the fennel slices to create an alternating pattern of squash-apple-fennel. Don't worry if some of the slices fall apart.
- Continue around the edge of the pan and fill in any room in the center or around the edges with the same alternating pattern, squash-apple-fennel. Tuck remaining fennel slices in to tighten up the veggies...it cooks better if it's packed pretty tightly into the dish. The design of your tian can be whatever you would like and whatever works best for the shape of your dish. There is lots of inspiration online!
- Pour ½ cup of olive oil over the tian, taking care to spread it over as many of the vegetables as possible. Season with ½ teaspoon salt.
- Cover the tian with foil and bake for 40 minutes. After 40 minutes, remove the foil and bake 20 minutes more. In the meantime, combine the walnuts and rosemary in a small bowl, and toss with 1 teaspoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt.
- Check to make sure the vegetables are just about done by piercing the tian with a small knife. Make sure you pierce through the squash, fennel, and apple. There should be very little or no resistance. If the vegetables still seem pretty firm, let the tian cook another 5-10 minutes and check them again before proceeding.
- Spread the walnut-rosemary mixture evenly over the top of the tian, and return to the oven for 10-15 minutes, until the walnuts are toasted. Watch carefully to make sure they don't burn. Remove from oven and let sit for 10 minutes before serving.