Digging into the strata

Tomorrow: The plague of the plastic containers.

I’m not just a foodie, I’m a cookie (one who just loves cooking). And for a cookie, can there be a greater compliment than someone chasing you down for a recipe?
Cooking for volunteers at the Friends of the Library Book Sale recently, I was passed a note from someone who had tasted the previous night’s dinner dish and just had to have the 4-1-1. “It was the most delicious casserole,” she wrote. (Aw, shucks, ma’am, t’werent nothin’. Blush. Duck head. Toe ground.)
I was especially pleased because this was something I’d not attempted before: serving a hot dish at the sale.
The kitchen in which I work during the sale has no oven, I’d bake the dish at home, so it had to taste great at any temperature. I was determined to get away from sandwiches for once and to offer something hearty at the dinner hour.
The menu had to accommodate vegetarians and conservative appetites. And there was a budget. So, all-temperature dish. No meat. Something not too costly.
My tendency is always to look back. Penny pinching in the kitchen was more valued in yesteryear than today. Home cooks prided themselves on making use of ingredients that would otherwise go to waste.
I recalled a dish that was among the first I ever served to company when I nervously invited an older acquaintance to lunch back in the ’70s. The meal had to be prepared in advance as I had to work that morning. And I wanted something rather dainty as befitted a ladies luncheon.
My solution: strata, savory bread pudding, a Happy Homemaker alternative to quiche or souffle.
Standard strata ingredients are: stale, dry bread, a custard of eggs and milk and cheese, meats or vegetables, layered in a casserole dish, weighted down, held in the refrigerator overnight and baked. (Before preservatives, bread had a short shelf life; food sections were full of advice on how to use up stale bread.
Many people have forgotten the dish if they ever heard of it. But we had a lot of leftover bread ends from all those sandwiches. A cheese and spinach strata sounded delish. I made a test batch and learned a key lesson: Don’t overdo the cheese or other fatty ingredients or the strata will be too rich.
Here’s what I served:Cheese and spinach strata

1-1 1/2 loaves stale, dry bread, sliced, or cut into chunks*
Softened butter
2 boxes frozen spinach, defrosted (or 1 package fresh baby spinach)
1 onion, finely chopped
2-3 cups grated cheese**
4 cups milk
4 eggs
2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Very, very lightly, smear a little butter on each slice or chunk of bread. Line the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch pan with half the bread, reserving the remainder.
In a saute pan, melt a little butter and saute onion over medium heat until limp and translucent. Add defrosted or fresh spinach and cook until heated through.
Scatter half the spinach-onion mixture over the bread followed by an even sprinkling of cheese. Add the remaining bread slices or chunks. Scatter remaining spinach-onion mixture over bread.
In a large bowl, beat together eggs, milk, salt, pepper and Dijon. Pour evenly over casserole Sprinkle grated cheese over the top. Cover with plastic wrap. Place another 9-by-13 or a zippered plastic bag of rice or beans on top to sink the bread below the milk line.
Refrigerate overnight. Peel off plastic wrap (you may need to use a rubber spatula to release any cheese that has adheres to the plastic, allowing it to fall into place back on the casserole).
Bring to room temperature before baking. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour or possibly a little more until knife inserted in center comes out clean.
* Freeze bread ends and use when you’ve accumulated enough of them. Any type of savory bread may be used, from sliced grocery store loaves to rustic “French” or “Italian” varieties. Flavored breads — olive-and-rosemary, for instance — add interest. If the bread is soft and fresh, dry it in a 225-degree oven for 30 minutes.
** Cheddar works but Jarlsberg gives a less rich, more nutty and sophisticated flavor.
Variations: Add mushrooms or other chopped vegetables along with or in place of the spinach. Add seafood (crab is popular), chopped ham, sausage, cooked well-drained bacon, chunks of seasoned and baked tofu, tempeh or meat analog. Higher acid ingredients such as peeled and seeded tomatoes or a splash of balsamic vinegar in place of the Dijon help balance the richness of the dish. You may use low-fat milk but not non-fat. Egg substitute can be used for half the whole eggs.
Strata for the health-conscious: Don’t butter the bread; just use some butter-flavored spray. Use a higher-fiber bread but trim off really hard crusts. Use lowfat cheese, if you can stand it. Or substitute ricotta for part of the greated cheese; just dot it on. Use fresh spinach and maybe a little more of it. Saute onion and spinach in olive oil or olive oil spray. Use egg substitute (such as vegan Energ-G) for half the eggs. Use lowfat milk. Use 2 teaspoons or more dried herbs, or fresh herbs to pump up flavors to make up for loss of fat.

Tomorrow: The plague of the plastic containers.

Gratuitous, meaningless cat photo. Did I remember to take a picture of strata? Am I about to make one now for photo purposes? Noooooooooo.

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