One of the most impressive looking desserts, to me, is a trifle.  Those elegant layers in wonderful colors (especially if one of those colors is the dark rich brown of chocolate), stacked carefully together and topped with whipped cream and fruit and dark chocolate shavings…

But the impressive thing about them, to me, is how skilled the artist who puts them together has to be to get everything just so – the layers sit happily atop one another, the beautiful serving glass doesn’t have smears of pudding where the cake should be – it’s a skill I, with my limited patience and tendency for mess in the kitchen, simply do not possess.  Of course, I don’t make a lot of trifles.

For this week’s Bittman, however, I made what he calls a Vegetable Torta, which apparently is supposed to have layers.  He says:

“47. Vegetable Torta: Roast sliced eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and onions.  Stack in layers with fresh basil in a well-oiled springform or roasting pan and top with bread crumbs or Parmesan (or both); bake for 20 minutes or so.”

I made a number of decisions about these directions, at least two of which were evidently somewhat silly.  I don’t care for roasted tomatoes (unless they are intended for salsa or are being oven dried), so I opted for a shiny orange bell pepper instead.  Because I often overestimate how much of everything I will need and end up with WAY more dinner than N. and I could consume in 2 or 3 days, let alone one sitting, I am trying to be more conscious about my tendency to overbuy.  For this dinner, therefore, I proudly limited myself to only one eggplant, two zucchini, one pepper… in short, less than I ordinarily would have used.  Because N. is such a big fan of any kind of bread product, which includes panko or toasty bread crumbs of any kind, I decided to use a shallow, oval Corningware-type baking dish I bought myself recently rather than a tall sided pan, because this would allow more space for bread crumbs, which means more bread.  This was silly because when it came time to layer, there was neither enough material nor enough room.  The vegetables nestled nicely in with each other, but they settled in on the same level.  No stacking necessary, apparently.

Here’s what I used:

1 eggplant, cut in ½ inch slices

2 medium zucchini, cut in ¼ inch slices

1 orange bell pepper, seeded, cut in ¼ inch rings

1 leek, white and light green parts thinly sliced

Olive oil

2 cups fresh white bread crumbs

1 TB butter

2 TB freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

8-10 julienned oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained

I tossed the vegetables in a liberal bath of olive oil, sea salt, and black pepper, then spread them out onto two cookie sheets, trying to keep them all in a single layer so they wouldn’t inhibit one another’s roasting.  In an oven preheated to 400F, I roasted them for about half an hour.  They softened and collected lovely dark roasty spots and it was a good thing I left the house for a while, because otherwise I probably would have stood over the cooling racks and eaten half the eggplant right then and there.

Resisting the urge to eat dinner at 3:30pm, I returned to the cooled slices later.  With the oven preheating to 375F, I (failing to layer) arranged the vegetables in my shallow oval dish.  As a last minute flash of inspiration and idiocy, I tucked a handful of sun-dried tomatoes in and around my little veg slices, and completely forgot the basil.

Since I made the bread crumbs by running the torn scraps of a sourdough baguette through my food processor, I dumped the butter, cheese, garlic powder, and some pepper right in on top of the crumbs and pulsed the whole thing a few times until the fat seemed evenly distributed.  I topped the vegetables with a liberal crumb layer and stowed it in the oven.

While the vegetables softened even more and offered each other new flavor profiles, I heated some chicken stock and olive oil to make couscous.  At the last minute, as I fluffed the tiny pasta with a fork (trying in vain not to scratch up the bottom of the pot), I added some toasted pine nuts and a few tablespoons of minced fresh parsley for added nuttiness and freshness.

The flavors of both torta and couscous were excellent.  I will continue to make couscous this way (I usually use chicken stock but haven’t ever really stirred in additional components before), but the torta needed some adjustments.  As I mentioned with my first Bittman experiment, it was really just roasted vegetables with a crumb topping.  There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but I felt as though it were missing a binding agent.  Perhaps using tomatoes instead of a bell pepper would yield some juices, which would make the collection a bit saucier.  Perhaps using the recommended pan and enough vegetables to layer things up would have married flavors and created more cohesion.  Perhaps basil would have magically tied the whole thing together.  Perhaps, and this is badness from the baddest part of me, integrating slices of fresh mozzarella cheese before baking would make this dish – it would become like a mixed vegetable Eggplant Parmesan, but with the breading in crumbled topping form rather than fried around the eggplant slices.

How does it always end up being about the cheese?

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