I really like baked casserole dishes. You can assemble them at your leisure, then pop them in the oven and serve them when you’re ready to eat. It’s cooking at its most relaxing.
The people of Puglia, the region at the heel of the Italian boot, are particularly casserole dishes they call tielle after the cooking vessel in which they are cooked. The most famous of these, often simply called tiella pugliese, is a rich mixture of rice, potatoes, mussels, tomatoes and more. It’s filling enough to serve as a one dish meal. This simpler but no less delicious potato, onions and tomato casserole makes a great side dish for grilled meats or fish. The dish is at its best when you can harvest tomatoes and fresh oregano from your own garden, but you can enjoy it any time of year. Cheap, filling and really tasty, the dish practically defines la cucina povera.
Serves 4-5 as a side dish
- 250g (1/2 lb) potatoes, peeled and sliced
- 250g (1/2 lb) onion, sliced
- 250g (1/2 lb) tomatoes, sliced, seeds discarded
- A few sprigs fresh oregano or dried oregano
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
- Salt and pepper
- Breadcrumbs, q.b.
- Olive oil
Grease a baking dish, preferably made from terra-cotta, with a bit of olive oil.
Place a layer of sliced onion in the bottom of the dish and drizzle with olive oil. Place a layer of potato on top of the onions, then a layer of tomatoes. Sprinkle that with garlic, oregano leaves, salt and pepper, and drizzle with olive oil. Repeat until you use up all the ingredients—but for the top layer, mix potatoes and tomatoes in a decorative pattern.
Add enough water to come up about halfway up the height of the ingredients. Sprinkle the top layer with breadcrumbs and drizzle with olive oil.
Bake in a moderate oven (180C/350F) on convection heat for about 45-60 minutes, until the ingredients are cooked, most of the liquid evaporated and the top nicely browned. Let cool for about 10-15 minutes before serving.
There are few ways to go wrong with this no fuss dish. But, like so many simple dishes, the better the quality of your ingredients, the more toothsome the result. Besides the tomatoes, look for yellow fleshed potatoes like Yukon Golds. Olive oil from Puglia would, of course be ideal. But if you can’t find it easily, look for olive oil of the dark green, fruity variety with intense flavor.
The top should be nicely browned. And don’t worry if a few edges here and there are slightly charred—some people say that’s the best part! If the top is not browning as it should, torque up the heat to 200C/400F for a few minutes at the end. And don’t neglect the rest period before serving. Besides cooling the dish off a bit and avoiding burning your tongue, the rest also allows the oil and any remaining juices to soak into the potatoes, rendering them even more unctuous and delicious.
If you’re not feeling particularly fancy, you can also make a more down home version of this dish by mixing all the ingredients (other than the breadcrumbs) in a mixing bowl and pouring them into the baking dish, flattening the ingredients out to form a more or less even top. Drizzle with olive oil and proceed as directed. It’ll be every bit as good, just a little less pretty.
Once you have the basic recipe down, you can mix things up according to your tastes to make all sorts of vegetable casseroles. I’ve seen recipes that add peppers to the mix, some include zucchini and even fried eggplant. Not all include garlic or oregano, while others call for some grated pecorino cheese.