Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A spring strata

On Sunday evening, we ate a strata for dinner. What, might you ask, is this intergalactic delicacy?

A strata is somewhat like a bread pudding or a bread gratin, if such a thing exists. I often see it classified as a breakfast item, great for brunch because it demands advance assembly and generous time in the refrigerator to set up before baking. The allure is that you can whip it up the night before your guests arrive, then - voila! - pull it from the fridge bright and early the next morning and pop it in the oven. This requires fluid, dance-like moves (arms extended!), a vintage apron, mid-heels, and sparkling white teeth. A vacuum and a tea-length day dress don't hurt either.

But I'll be honest with you - this is my kind of dinner fare! I forgo the 50s hostess routine and instead prep in the early afternoon to serve by 7. This is a weekend or day-off kind of supper, but it's delicious and only a bit retro-inspired. I mean, bread baked with cheese for dinner? I would even sign up to host some folks so I have a fabulous excuse to eat this constantly (brunch and dinner)! It only feels a teensy-tiny bit like breakfast for dinner, and who doesn't love a little insolence in the evening?

I got my inspiration from Crescent Dragonwagon's "Passionate Vegetarian." Her version includes either zucchini or spinach, and she offers a number of variations on the theme (rancheros flavor! cornbread!). The strata has a tender, spongy quality to it, though the texture varies based on the bread used. I have had great success using crumbled leftover cornbread, as recommended by Ms. Dragonwagon; it adds a richness and sweetness that pairs very well with the egg and the savory, cheesy filling. The entire dish is brightened by lemon, which is a key flavor and is used generously in both zest and juice form. You basically use an entire lemon, plus a bit of mustard and a dash of nutmeg, for the key flavors of the dish. I added garlic because I had lovely green garlic left over from the week's box - the green garlic is a gentle but distinct flavor that I highly recommend. It pairs wonderfully with the asparagus and lemon. I will confess, I haven't made this using regular garlic as a sub for the green version, though I bet it would work if you exhibit garlic restraint. Who doesn't fight the urge to toss in a couple extra cloves every now and then? I would advise against a heavy garlic hand for this dish because the flavors are delicate, fresh, and very springy.

So pull out the mimosas and invite the gang over for brunch. You can roll out of bed exactly one hour before they arrive, serving a piping hot, tasty dish the second they arrive. Or you can be like me and horde the entire thing to yourself (and husband!) for dinner, knowing that the leftovers are destined to reemerge as lunch the next day.

Asparagus Strata
Adapted from Crescent Dragonwagon in Passionate Vegetarian

Note: You can use lots of barely-cooked veggies in this strata. Crescent Dragonwagon suggests zucchini or spinach in her recipe. I can vouch for the zucchini!

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 stalks of green garlic, thinly sliced (alternatively, you can use 2 cloves regular garlic, or omit)
1 1/2 to 2 cups of asparagus, cleaned and sliced on the diagonal in 1-inch slices
1 large lemon, including the juice and 1 teaspoon of zest
1 cup grated Jarlsberg cheese (or you could do gruyere - would be lovely)
1/4 of a large red onion, finely diced
4 eggs
2 cups low-fat milk
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
Nutmeg (a few dashes)
Day-old country bread (white or wheat), equivalent to about 8 regular slices of bread - torn into large crumbs

Make the veggie filling: Heat the olive oil over medium heat; add the garlic and cook for about 3 minutes for green garlic, 1 minute for regular, stirring occasionally. Add the asparagus and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and place the mixture in a medium mixing bowl. Add the 1 teaspoon of lemon zest and the juice from the lemon to the bowl; stir to combine. Mix in 2/3 cup of the grated cheese and the red onion. Set aside.

Prepare the eggs: Whisk the eggs lightly in a medium bowl. Add the milk, Tabasco, dry mustard, nutmeg, salt and pepper, mixing well.

Assemble the dish: Spray an 8x8 inch baking pan (or another of a similar size) with cooking spray. Spread about half of the bread in the bottom of the dish. Pour one-third of the egg mixture over the bread. Spread the asparagus mixture over the bottom egg/bread layer. Top with the remaining bread, then pour the remaining egg mixture evenly over the to. Sprinkle the reserved cheese over the surface. Cover and refrigerate overnight or, at minimum, four hours.

Cook: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake, uncovered, for 40 to 50 minutes. When it's bubbly and lightly browned, it's ready. Remove from the oven and let stand for about 5 minutes.

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