By Linda Viertel–
The first time friends made me strata for Sunday brunch many years ago, I thought it was the most divine breakfast comfort food imaginable (and I’m someone who used to have pancakes for dinner, if I could, when I was growing up in the Midwest). Easy to make, strata sits in the fridge for several hours or, better yet, overnight, so when you pop it in the oven the following morning, all the work will have already been done. Plus, variations abound according to your tastes and favorite ingredients: substitute sausage for bacon (or use both). Forego all meats for a vegetarian version and substitute fresh spinach, roasted peppers, blanched broccoli. Instead of torn up French bread, you can use day-old croissants or country bread. Strata is forgiving; it can use up multiple supplies in your kitchen, appeal to a variety of tastes, and be absolutely delicious every time. But don’t stint on the whole milk and cheeses, whatever you do!
Basic Strata (for a 9×13 inch baking pan)
6 cups (appr.) lightly packed torn bread (no need to remove crusts)
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
1 cup grated Cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese
8+ slices of good quality bacon (or several sausage links, casings removed)
4 cups whole milk
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup chopped parsley
1/3 cup chopped shallots or onions (or a mixture)
Generously grease the 9×13 inch baking pan with plenty of butter. Cut up the bacon into bite-size pieces and sauté until crisp. Remove bacon pieces to paper towels for degreasing. Pour off most of the fat in the pan and then sauté the shallots or onions until softened.
Whip eggs in a large bowl until thoroughly blended; take 2 minutes to make sure they are thoroughly whipped. Then whisk in the milk, salt and pepper, parsley, grated cheeses, and bacon pieces, and fold in the torn bread.
Pour this mixture into your prepared baking pan and press gently down to make sure all the liquid is evenly distributed throughout the bread pieces. Cover and let sit in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or up to 24, giving the bread ample time to absorb the liquid. Take the strata out of the fridge while the oven heats up to allow it to come to room temperature or, at least, remove some of the chill.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and bake your strata for an hour to an hour and ten minutes, until golden, puffed in the center and the eggs have thoroughly set. Let it rest for a few minutes before scooping out servings.
Now comes the fun part for your variation possibilities. Be creative: if you want an Italian-style strata, sub in pepperoni or crumbled hot Italian sausage (casings removed) for the bacon; just add mushrooms and even garlic to the onion sauté, maybe some red pepper slices as well. Add green olives if you wish and substitute mozzarella chunks for the grated Gruyere and cheddar, then throw in that ½ cup of Parmesan for good measure.
If a Mexican-style strata appeals, just stir green chilies and some salsa into the egg mixture. Substitute chorizo for the bacon, throw in a few chopped tomatoes without their juices, and, if you like Pepper Jack cheese, use that instead of Monterey Jack or a combination of both. Mexican strata can be topped with fresh cilantro leaves after it comes out of the oven, then served with more salsa and sliced avocado.
For a vegetable strata, your tastes or whatever is in your vegetable bin can determine how best to enliven your dish. But the basics that work best are blanched fresh spinach squeezed dry, perhaps drained quartered artichokes, even blanched carrot rounds, leftover roasted broccoli or bit-sized roasted or blanched cauliflower. Add thyme as a seasoning, substitute Swiss cheese or goat cheese if you wish, but keep the Parmesan; maybe throw in a teaspoon of Dijon to the egg mixture and some oregano leaves as well. Use your imagination for this healthier version of strata.
Whatever gorgeous puffy casserole you bring forth from the oven on Christmas morning, all the preparations will have been done the night before, the dishes cleaned, and everyone at your table will not only be impressed by the presentation but eager to taste the results.