To many a gay boy The Brunch is more than just a meal served somewhere between 10AM and 3PM. It is a sacrament. I don't know how our taking it very, VERY seriously began but that is just the way it is and that isn't going to change on my watch. The Brunch is not only an opportunity to create a highly nuanced culinary preparation served at peculiar hours; it also provides us with a stage for showing off mad cooking skills and colorful serving platters collected at flea markets.
So when my spinster sister called a couple of weeks ago asking if she could host our dad's birthday brunch this year I was not too happy about it. After all, I started the annual brunch tradition to celebrate dad *and* so I could show off my mad cooking skills and colorful serving platers.
"But why? What did he ever do to you?"Sis's inability to cook is the stuff of legend around here. Dinner invitations at her place are not to be accepted if you have not had your inoculations and at least a two weeks course of probiotics. Her standard breakfast buffet is a row of multicolored cereal boxes and a jug of milk on the counter. The stack of bowls don't even match (gasp!) and would it kill her to buy a real platter so the store-bought soggy cinnamon rolls don't have to be served on the pressed aluminum tray it they are sold in?
Dad has been quite supportive and extremely generous throughout the years to us so it seemed particularly cruel to subject him to her customary train-wreck meal event in return.
"Girl, we want to celebrate him not bury him."
"I'm serious Trevor!"So was I. I opted not to express my contempt for her cooking out loud just then. It is best to let her believe I am joking even when I'm not. Besides, she knew I was serious, and I knew she knew I knew it. She may not know how to make a cup of tea but otherwise she is very knowledgeable. The poor thing.
It is just like my twin sister to get the purpose of brunch entirely wrong. This annual celebration was for showing off antique serving ware and a vingage cake stand I hid in the garage for a year so I could nonchalantly take it to the table making friends and family jealous. Sis just wanted to show off her new recessed lighting. That can be done at any other meal.
Besides, just what was she thinking she would cook for us? If I didn't know she was an expert home plumber I would have thought her lead pipes leached microbes in her water supply causing her delusions of culinary aptitude.
"At least let me bring something. What can I bring?"
"How about everything?"She played me like a fiddle. But the idea was perfect. A wonderful compromise. I would go to her house the night before and do all the cooking and she would install her new porch lights and fix the washer blades on my car. Everyone is happy.
I haven't been at many brunches where the guests appreciated the to-die-for porch lights but there is a first for everything so I dusted off my cake plate and the vintage Villaroy and Boch oven-to-table casseroles and went to town.
Tomato and Spinach Strata
adapted from Eating Well magazine.
This recipe is sized for a crowd and calls for two 8 x 12 shallow baking dishes and easily serves a dozen or more people. The recipe is easy to scale in half if you are hosting a smaller group but I would make the full tomato sauce recipe and freeze what you don't use for a future pasta dinner or another strata. Its also easy to save time by using a store bought sauce but if you do that, use the fresh kind many markets carry and not the kind sold in jars. Make the sauce a day or two earlier to save time the night before your brunch.
Make the tomato sauce:
- 1 1/2 t. olive oil
- 1 onion, coarsely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 28 oz cans plum tomatoes, drained
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 t. dried thyme or oregano
- 2 T chopped fresh parsley
- salt and pepper to taste.
Heat olive oil in a large heavy non-stick saucepan over medium heat. Ad onions and cook while stirring, until softened. About 3-5 minutes. Add garlic and stir another 2 minutes longer. Add tomatoes, bay leaf and thyme. Cook over medium high heat, stirring and breaking up the tomatoes well with a wooden spoon or spatula, until thickened, 15020 minutes. Remove the bay leaf. Stir in the parsley and season with salt and pepper. Let cool. The sauce can be made ahead and stored, covered , in the refrigerator for up to two days.)
Make the strata:
- 1 T olive oil
- 2 onions, choppped
- 4 cups sliced mushrooms
- 1/2 t. salt
- 1/2 t. ground pepper
- 2 pounds low fat cottage cheese
- 1 10 oz. "bricks" of frozen, chopped spinach, thawed with all moisture squeezed out.
- 1/4 t. ground nutmeg
- 1 large loaf of good quality italian or sourdough bread, sliced
- 1/2 par skim mozzarella, thinly sliced
- 4 large eggs
- 1 large egg whites
- 2 cups low fat milk
- 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 T chopped fresh parsley
Coat two 8 x 12 inch shallow 2 qt. baking dishes with non-stick cooking spray. Heat 1 1/2 teaspoons of the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Lower the heat to medium and cook until the onions are softened. Transfer onions to a bowl.
Add the remaining olive oil to skillet, raise heat, and add mushrooms and sauté until the moisture has evaporated, 4-5 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with the onions an d season with 1/4 t of salt and 1/4 t of pepper.
Line a medium bowl with a double thickness of cheesecloth and spoon the cottage cheese into the center. Gather up the cheesecloth and slowly squeeze out the excess moisture. Add the cottage cheese to a bowl with the spinach and mix with the nutmeg and remaining 1/4 t. salt and 1/4 t. pepper.
At long last you can assemble the strata: Spoon 1/4 of the tomato sauce into the bottom of one of the dishes. Arrange 1/4 of the bread slices in a layer across the bottom of the pan. Spoon 1/2 the spinach mixture over the bread. Arrange another layer of bread over the spinach and top the bread with 1/2 the onion mushroom mixture. Top this with one half of the mozzarella cheese slices and then 1/4 of the tomato sauce. Repeat steps on second dish to finish both strata.
In a small bowl whisk the eggs, egg whites and milk. Pour half of the egg mixture slowly over each casserole, poking the break gently with a knife until the mixture has been completely absorbed. Cover each and refrigerate overnight.
Bake it! Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake strata uncovered for 40 minutes. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and bake for 10 minutes longer until puffed up and golden brown. Let stand for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped parsley, cut into squares and serve hot.