Posted on April 6th, 2011
When discussing the layered egg casserole, my Cleveland-to-Portland-to-New Orleans-to-Cleveland (again) food pal and sometimes collaborator Lizzy Caston refers to strata as the poor man’s soufflé. I quite like that description.
With little protest, I should say that I am as pleased to fork an overly-mannered and fussy soufflé with the same enthusiasm as the next metro dandy. Refinement can be altogether becoming. Comfortable, even. And yet, with that said, when it comes to eating — really and truly eating — I’m best sated with the poor man’s anything: those house-made assemblies resulting from the discarded remainders of the prime cuts destined for the show-and-tell crowd. I’m referring to the the dishes recalled as real food memories, constructed by real food people. These are the folks not one-step-removed from the source. Nope, they — or rather what they tend, gather, hatch, or harvest — ARE the source. Think about it for just a moment: every culinary supplier, from the butcher to the fisherman, the farmer to the forager, the cattleman to the cheesemaker can lay claim to their own signature gallimaufry, from soups and hashes to hotchpotches and stews. While their produce provides for others, they too must provide for their own. So while chefs are paid to open diners’ wallets, it is these real meals that are made to open the mouths of working people, to restock the energies of the production line, or simply to line the bellies of appreciative kin. This isn’t food for fuel as much as it is fuel for fellowship. While not necessarily the most aesthetically desirable in appearance, these are the bits of the greatest concentration, those closest to the bone, and intended for the greatest end. In other words, the good stuff. Of family.
Growing up, we had our share of baked egg casseroles but no such thing called “strata” broke the rotation in our house. Foremost my mom was about efficiency, but even at the height of the supermarket era, we ate fresh, homemade meals. The persnickety fabrication of a soufflé by any name would seem excessive, particularly for a single working mother with two young boys to fill.
I was in my late teens when I was first made aware of the strata’s first-cousin relation to my beloved scrambles, quiches, and frittatas. It was nearing the tail end of the eighties and I found myself filling in for another hungover no-show brunch chef at a well regarded bistro on the Washington coast. Summer and weekend work, you know. I was still in high school, probably, and my role to that point had been geared towards the front of the house. My uniform consisted of a knit tie, pressed light slacks, and (pimped) Stacy Adams rather than the checkered kitchen trousers and toque of the cook staff. But I knew the menu as well as anyone, and I was the one guy who had bothered to show up. We had something like forty on the books. Chances are I was also shaking off the night’s excesses but at eighteen or so, my recovery was fairly brisk. No matter one’s station at the restaurant, we all had to know what made a commercial kitchen run and we were constantly reminded what it took to stay in business, particularly as the one “fine dining” joint in a timber-then-fishing-then-tourist town. In my case, the point was damned-near beat into me. “Be creative, do it fast, make it taste good, and don’t waste a fucking morsel,” the chef-owner-boss would harp. So every thing that went out, from popovers, to salads, to the entrees were met by these criteria. What wasn’t used up found a second life and it hardly required a culinary degree to recognize that a dish like strata was ideal house dinner-becomes-brunch nosh; nonpareil among the offerings on the Specials Board. Cheap to make, relatively quick to prepare, and it looked good on the plate. Tasted really good, too. Saturday’s closing shift prep simply called for whatever leftover baguettes we had on hand, a few liberal wedges of good cheese (grated), some fresh eggs, and a pile of herbs. (Roughly the same gear, coincidentally, that produced the finest post-shift, pre-spliff late Saturday evening omelette for the dish crew and their busboy lieutenants.) So then on Sunday the whole soppy and layered egg-bread-cheese mess assumed a hot rouse in the oven, and then became quickly portioned, garnished, and billed. All in the time it took the cover to wash down the requisite $11 Mimosa or Bloody Mary. Or three. As my kids would attest, it still works much the same way at our house on weekends, albeit without the tip.
The word strata, as I recall from freshman geology, is derivative of the geologic reference for layered rock or soil. Unlike the slow compaction that makes stone harder over considerable time, an overnight soak of bread in chicken eggs and grated cheese readies the lot for rising in a hot oven. I’ve been told that strata, the dish, probably didn’t always contain eggs. Just the same I’m guessing it didn’t take long for someone to figure out that the pre-arranged marriage of egg, cheese, and bread would render forth a fluffed and savory goodness to rival the finest soufflé, or whatever it’s called.
The recipe below makes use of verdant spring onions, which are just showing up in bunches at farmers’ markets and stands. Blend the scallions with the eggs, add a good prosciutto, and you’ll produce a strata of green eggs and ham that may have moved the good Dr. Suess to drop a tight rhyme.
1 baguette, ends chopped off and discarded, cut into 1/2 inch slices and left to go stale
6 spring onions, roughly sliced
5 oz. mozzarella, roughly chopped
2 oz. parmesan, shaved or grated
3 1/2 oz. cheddar, broken into pieces
3 1/2 fl. oz. soured cream
6 free-range eggs
Small bunch fresh chives, chopped, to garnish.
Arrange the stale baguette slices in a layer in a 10-inch square dish.
Place the mozzarella, parmesan and cheddar into a food processor. Add the soured cream and eggs, then blend until smooth. Add the chopped spring onions.
Pour the cheese and egg mixture over the bread in the dish, cover with cling film, and leave in the fridge to soak overnight.
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350 F
Take the strata out of the fridge and uncover. Bake for 30 minutes, or until completely cooked through.
Remove from the oven and sprinkle with chives and spoon onto serving plates.
Source: Nigella Lawson