When spring hits I find myself facing two equal and opposite desires every Saturday morning–I want to get up with the sun to work in my vegetable garden and I want to have friends over for brunch. Luckily, last year I discovered a way to accommodate both: strata. It can be put together the night before and baked the following morning while I’m elbow deep in fresh soil. In fact, it’s such a flexible dish that with a few tweaks it’s suitable for any season. If you came to brunch at my house, I can almost guarantee that this is what I would make for you.
Spring Market Strata
- 1/2 a loaf of a rustic, artisan bread, such as Niedlov’s European Country Loaf
- 1 large leek*
- 1/2 lb. sausage, casing removed if applicable (I used Link41′s Toulouse sausage this time)
- 2.5 oz., approximately 1 cup, grated cheese, such as Sequatchie Cove’s James Oliver
- 8 farm fresh eggs
- 1/2 c. whole milk
- 1 tsp. Kosher salt
- four sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
- olive oil and/or butter
- pepper to taste
- a pinch of nutmeg, freshly grated if possible
* A note about cooking with leeks: be sure to wash them carefully. To do this, trim off the woody, dark green tops and the root end and toss them in your compost. Slice the remaining stem in half lengthwise and rinse thoroughly under cool water, taking care that no dirt is left between the layers. I let them dry, cut side down, on a clean kitchen towel.
Preheat your oven to 350.
With a serrated knife (or just a really sharp one), remove the crust from the bread. Put the trimmings aside. Now cut the bread into smallish cubes–about ¾ inch. This should yield about four cups of cubes. Put the cubes on a baking tray, drizzle lightly with olive oil and toss with your hands to coat. Bake for about ten minutes until the bread is lightly toasted. (I like to toast the leftover crust at the same time for a cook’s treat.)
Meanwhile, brown the sausage in a skillet over medium heat. Slice your leek into thin half moons. When the sausage is almost cooked, add the leek to the pan and cook until soft. If you are omitting the sausage, saute the leek in a pan with a 1-2 tsp. of olive oil or butter over medium heat until soft.
Grease an 8 by 8 inch or 10.5 by 7 inch baking dish with butter or olive oil. Add the bread cubes, sausage, leek and cheese to the dish and gently combine using your hands or a large spoon.
Whisk together the eggs, milk, salt, pepper, thyme and nutmeg and pour over the bread mixture. If you are making this the night before, cover with foil and place in the refrigerator. Otherwise, go ahead and bake for approximately 40 minutes or until the center has just set. You want the interior to be very moist.
Dust the garden dirt off your hands and enjoy.
Make it vegetarian: Substitute sauteed mushrooms or simply omit the sausage altogether.
Make it lactose free: Substitute 2/3 c. of crumbled goat’s cheese and 1/2 c. of your favorite non-dairy milk for the shredded cheese and milk.