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Monday, May 5, 2014

Sweet and Savory Stratas








Egg main dishes are wonderfully versatile, serving well as a contribution to a breakfast or brunch potluck and taking on center stage for a quick weeknight dinner. This weekend I had the opportunity to make two stratas that demonstrate the wide range of dishes possible with eggs at the base. Our brunch would have fresh fruit and breakfast meats brought by others; rather than also serving the traditional bread choices--bagels, muffins, etc.--the main dish incorporated both protein and grain servings. To meet the tastes of all, I made both a sweet and a savory strata, demonstrating how the basic method can take on very different characteristics depending on the add-ons.

This weekend, I had an opportunity to provide the main dish for a brunch potluck. With others bringing fresh fruit and breakfast meats, making strata seemed a great way to provide main dish and bread all in one. So what is a "strata?" Wikipedia, everyone's favorite source of expertise, provides this definition: "Strata or stratta is a family of layered casserole dishes in American cuisine. The most common modern variant is a brunch dish, similar to a quiche or frittata, made from a mixture which mainly consists of bread, eggs and cheese." 

There are a few things to keep in mind when making strata:
  • Firm, hearty breads generally are best, since plain white sandwich loaves tend to dissolve into mush too quickly, making the overall texture of the final dish disappointing. 
  • Drying or toasting the bread first can help make sure the bread absorbs all the flavor of the custard ingredients. This is a great way to use up those ends of bread your family doesn't eat, the odd hard roll left over from a barbecue, etc. Just cube the bread, dry thoroughly and store (freezer is best, though thoroughly dried bread can be stored on the shelf for a week or two).
  • You can vary the amounts of custard (the egg mixture) and bread so that your final dish is much like a bread pudding all the way to a mostly egg frittata-like dish. The amounts in today's recipes lean toward the bread pudding side, so feel free to reduce the amount of bread or add another egg and some more milk if you want a softer final dish.

Now, to the recipes.

 

Maple, Apple, and Pecan Strata

8 eggs
approximately 8 to 10 oz dense bread, diced
1/3 c maple syrup, real or imitation acceptable 
1 t vanilla
2 t cinnamon
2 c milk; more may be needed

Topping
3 T butter
1/3 c sugar
1 1/2 c cored but not peeled apple, chopped (2 medium)
1 1/2 c pecan halves
1/2 t maple flavoring

1.  Spread the bread in a well-buttered 10 inch round casserole dish.
2.  Combine the eggs, syrup, vanilla, and cinnamon. Beat well.
3.  Gradually add the milk to the eggs and then pour over the bread. If there is not enough of the egg mixture to cover the bread, you may need to add a little more milk. (If you need to add more than another cup of milk, you may want to stir in an additional egg to the added milk.)
4.  Prepare the Topping:  Melt the butter and sugar over medium high heat and stir in the apples. Cook until the apples are translucent and the mixture has a nicely caramelized texture and color. Remove from heat and stir in the maple flavoring and pecans.
5.  Spread the Topping evenly over the egg and bread mixture. Cover tightly and refrigerate at least 4 to 5 hours or overnight.
6.  Remove the strata from the refrigerator. Preheat oven to 325. Uncover the strata and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Allow to sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 5 to 6. Serving suggestion: provide maple syrup and/or vanilla yogurt for toppings. 

Frugal hints:
  • The pecans can be cut back--to even 1/2 cup-- chopping the nuts coarsely to spread the pieces and flavor more evenly. 
  • While substitute "maple syrups" are never as good as the real thing, this recipe can easily use the imitation varieties, with less impact on overall flavor than you might expect.
  • Plan to make this, and other egg-based main dishes, when eggs are on sale. Many stores use eggs as "loss leaders," so stock up when you see an attractive price. Don't worry--eggs will keep in the refrigerator for weeks, well past the "best by" date stamped on the carton. Even the USDA says so!




Spinach and Mushroom Strata

9 eggs
approximately 12 oz bread cubes
approximately 4 c milk
1 T olive or canola oil
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
4 oz mushrooms, sliced or coarsely chopped
2 to 3 c fresh baby spinach leaves
1 T prepared yellow mustard
3/4 t dried basil
1/2 t garlic powder or to taste
1/2 t seasoning salt
black pepper to taste
2 c grated cheddar, Monterrey Jack or similar cheese

1.  Saute the onions and mushrooms in the oil. When the onions are just starting to turn golden and the mushrooms are softened, stir in the spinach and cook for about 1 more minute, just enough to wilt the spinach slightly. Remove from heat.
2.  Toss the bread with the vegetable mixture and spread in a well-buttered 10 to 12 inch casserole dish.
3.  Combine the eggs, mustard, basil, garlic powder and seasoning salt and beat well. 
4.  Stir in about three cups of the milk and 1 cup of the grated cheese. 
5.  Pour the eggs over the bread mixture. If the bread is not well covered, pour another cup or so of milk, until the bread is just covered. Spread the rest of the cheese over the top. 
6.  Cover tightly and refrigerate 4 to 5 hours or overnight. 
7.  When ready to bake, remove the strata from the refrigerator and then begin to preheat oven to 325 degrees. Bake, uncovered, 30 to 40 minutes, until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Allow to sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. 

NOTE: If the strata begins to brown too much before the center is set, cover lightly with foil while finishing baking.

Serves 5 to 6. Provide salsa and/or hot sauce if desired. 

Variations:

Many vegetables can be added in addition or in place of the spinach. Fresh broccoli or cauliflower, broken into small, bite-sized pieces, can be sauteed with the onions. Chopped bell pepper can be sauteed with the onions too. 

This is a good way to not just use up leftover bread. If you have leftover vegetables (corn, peas, mixed vegetables, etc.), stir these into the bread with the onion mixture. 





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