Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Torta de Huerfano Gigante" A Mexican Vegetable Sandwich

What is an ideal food to take to a picnic or a potluck? A giant torta! Every Mexican boy or girl took a torta to school at some point. I first prepared this when I was in middle school, for a field trip to El Ajusco, a volcano south of Mexico City. When it came time to eat, our chaperon, an acerbic drama teacher yelled: "Everyone, take a look at this poor orphan's torta!". Lucky for me, there was enough to share. All my classmates were fascinated looking at all the pretty layers of veggie goodness. Even the bitter old chaperon ate a slice without saying a word - and then asked for seconds! So, who was the poor orphan after all, seƱor drama teacher?

Tortas are so immensely popular in Mexico City. They are the standard "to go" food since burritos are not really known in Mexico. Tortas are not ordinary sandwiches. Generally they contained re-fried beans, avocado, queso fresco (Mexican cheese) and escabeche (a spicy vegetable pickled salad). Tortas are traditionally prepared in a special bread called "telera", or in french bread rolls called "bolillos". In other parts of Mexico they are called "semitas". You can also make a torta ahogada ("drowned") by soaking the torta in a light tomato or chile sauce. So, are you ready to try it? You'll need the following ingredients:

  • 1 large, round country bread
  • 1 bunch of fresh spinach
  • 1 bunch of asparagus, about 12 stalks
  • 2 Portobello mushroom caps
  • 1 large eggplant, sliced
  • 2 heirloom tomatoes, sliced
  • 4 small zucchini, cut lenghtwise
  • 2 Red bell peppers, prepared as you would for Papas con rajas
  • A tablespoon of chopped onion
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

  • Olive oil, 1/4 cup
  • A teastpoon of mustard (Dijon style)
  • Vinegar, half a cup
  • Finely minced garlic
  • Fresh thyme. About a tea spoon, chopped
  • Coarse salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
  • A teaspoon of toasted pasilla soup base (optional)

I'm making my original recipe for a picnic, so I'm using ingredients that travel well and are not too soggy - so I'm not using refried beans. This torta doesn't have any animal products, so I'm only choosing firm fresh veggies. Start by slicing the zucchini lenghtwise, cut the musrhoom caps in half and discard the stems, slice the eggplant and rub salt on all sides. Salting the eggplant will make it "sweat" so it won't absorb a lot of oil and it roasts better. Let it rest in a colander for about five minutes. Prepare your vinaigrette while the eggplant "sweats". Combine all ingredients and whisk together to emulsify. Let it rest at room temperature.

Arrange all your veggies (except the peppers, spinach and tomatoes) on a tray and drizzle them with olive oil. Roast them close to the broiler for about 5 - 8 minutes, turning them once. Broilers vary, so you need to check often so they don't burn. You are looking for a nice, even golden brown.

Saute the spinach with a little bit of onion until it reduces down significantly. Let it cool and squeeze all the liquid out of it by using a clean kitchen napkin. Chop coarsely and set aside. Take your veggies out of the oven and let them cool.

For this recipe I used a large pain de campage. You can also use a sourdough loaf or a similar bread. If you want this recipe to be vegan, make sure your bread doesn't contain any eggs or dairy. Cut the top of the bread and save for later. Remove the inside of the bread and save it for a casserole or croutons. Leave about half an inch of bread around the crust.

Now, you are ready to layer all the veggies inside the bread. Start with the sauteed onions and spinach.

Continue with the roasted asparagus. Dip each asparagus in the dressing, and arrange in a lattice, creating one single layer.

Roast the bell peppers directly on your stove as you would for Papas con rajas. Remove the charred skin using a knife of the round part of a spoon. Open the peppers and remove the seeds and veins. Dip in dressing and arrange these pepper "sheets" inside the sandwich.

Next, layer the zucchini and the eggplant, and then the portobello mushrooms. Don't foget to dip each piece in dressing before putting it inside the torta.

finally, add a layer of fresh tomatoes. Make sure you squeeze all the seeds out. I don't bother with peeling them, tortas rarely have tomatoes that are peeled. Place the bread "lid" on top of the sandwich and wrap the entire thing in a clean kitchen napkin. Place inside a plastic bag and refrigerate for about an hour so everything sets.

Finally....Have a picnic! All you need is some fresh fruit and a nice wine. Slice the sandwich using a sharp serrated knife. You can experiment and add some ingredients of your own - avocados, artichoke hearts, roasted carrot slices, celeriac, even fruit like figs. Generally, you need to place the sturdy veggies on the bottom and the softer ingredients on top so the layers don't collapse or slide when you slice into them. I hope you enjoyed this recipe. Happy eating!

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