March 10, 2014 —
The holidays require stamina. You pour your heart and soul into cooking an elaborate feast for family and friends, you linger at the table for hours toasting auld lang syne and then you tumble into bed exhausted. The next day? You get up and do it again, especially if you have houseguests! Talk about the gift that keeps on giving…
Inevitably, all this cooking leads to leftovers, and rather than just cluttering up your kitchen, they can actually be repurposed into some quick and easy crowd-pleasers. People will perk right up at the sight of a crisp and spicy turkey tostada, long after they’ve grown tired of turkey sandwiches. And that leftover roast beef make a delicious hash! Of course there’s nothing like a casserole to absorb all manner of bits and bobs, but a strata is a rather elegant version. Its sophisticated Italian name—strata, meaning “layers,” which is a clue to this dish’s composition—belies a humble base of day-old bread, eggs and cheese. Not unlike quiche or frittata, the remaining ingredients are quite flexible and depend mostly on what’s in your fridge.
Strata has been around for more than a century, with the earliest known recipe from 1902 featuring bread and cheese layered with béchamel sauce. But a modern version with eggs became wildly popular after the 1984 publication of the Silver Palate Cookbook and remains something of a classic to this day. That recipe calls for pesto and prosciutto, but you could incorporate bits of leftover ham or chicken; any cooked vegetables, from potatoes to greens to asparagus; fresh herbs; and any combination of cheeses, preferably one that melts well and another with a bit of sharp flavor to it. The only thing you really need to remember is that once you assemble the strata, layering cubes of bread with vegetables and cheese in a large casserole dish, you pour over a mixture of eggs beaten with milk or cream and allow that to sit in the fridge overnight, or for several hours at least. The bread soaks all this up and, when you bake it the next day, the strata emerges puffed, golden-brown and custardy—the ultimate savory bread pudding.
This is not diet food. Save that for when the holidays are really over. But this decadent dish redeems itself somewhat when you use whole-grain bread, though any sort will do, including those stale baguettes that always seem to be hanging around. I also substitute some of the milk and cream with buttermilk because it aids digestion and I like the tang. (Use farm-fresh eggs and organic milk, if you can.) Your strata is delicious for breakfast or brunch, of course, but it also makes a wonderful supper. Whenever you decide to serve it, offer a crisp salad alongside, ideally made with slightly bitter radicchio or escarole to cut through all that richness. And now that you’ve used up all your leftovers, you have a clean slate upon which to plot your next meal.
Mushroom & Cheese Strata
1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick)
1 pound fresh mushrooms, stemmed, caps sliced
8 cups (packed) 1” cubes of crusty wholegrain bread, day-old preferable
2 cups whole milk
1 cup half and half
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
¾ cup buttermilk
5 large eggs
3/4 cup chopped fresh chives or scallion greens
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
3/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 ounces soft fresh goat cheese, crumbled
1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese (about 4 ounces)
1/2 cup grated Fontina cheese (about 2 ounces)
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 13”x9” ovenproof casserole. Melt butter in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and sauté until tender, about 8 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cool.
Combine bread and milk in a large bowl. Let stand until milk is absorbed, about 15 minutes.
Whisk half and half together with mustard, buttermilk, eggs, chives, thyme, garlic and salt and pepper in medium bowl. Stir in goat cheese.
Place half of bread mixture in single layer in prepared baking dish (it will not cover the entire bottom of the dish). Top with half each of mushrooms, Parmesan and Fontina, and half and half mixture. Repeat layering with remaining bread, mushrooms, Parmesan and Fontina cheeses, and half and half mixture. Cover and refrigerate overnight, or for a minimum of 6 hours.
Bake strata uncovered until puffed, golden and firm in center, about 1 hour.