- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2005

With children back in school, autumn a week away and the holidays - hard to believe - suddenly just around the corner, now is the time when many cooks start to think again about brunch entertaining.

Since this is a time of year when people start cooking meals at home more often, I like to think of it not only as the start of brunch season but also the beginning of leftovers season. It seems like our refrigerators now more often contain tiny parcels of cooked meat, poultry or vegetables, along with odd chunks of cheese; and the pantry is more likely to have in it the slightly stale, but still delicious, unfinished half of a good loaf of bread from the local boutique bakery.

All these factors give me a good reason to make one of my favorite easy brunch dishes: strata. The name comes from the Italian word for “layer,” and perfectly describes the way you assemble the dish by arranging layers of sliced meat, vegetables and bread along with shredded, grated or crumbled cheese in a baking dish, then soak it in a seasoned mixture of beaten eggs before baking. Think of it as a savory version of the popular dessert bread pudding and you’ll be exactly right.

Like bread puddings, stratas offer endless opportunities for creativity. Start with the bread. You want to use a flavorful loaf with a firm crumb and sturdy crust for the best taste and texture. I like sourdough bread, Italian ciabatta or something interesting like a rosemary loaf. Just stay away from pre-sliced commercial breads, which will only give you gummy results.

Different cheeses can contribute lots of variety to your strata. Sharp cheddar, rich and round-tasting Gruyere, piquant Parmesan, tangy and cream goat cheese or even blue-veined Stilton or Roquefort make good choices, whether used singly or in combination.

Use precooked chopped or sliced meats and vegetables to elaborate the strata even more. You can thinly slice last night’s roast and layer it with the bread. Or add julienne strips of ready-to-eat deli meats like salami or prosciutto. Or saute some sausage or bacon, drain well, and crumble before adding it. As for vegetables, some of my favorite options are sauteed mushrooms, roasted bell pepper strips or grilled eggplant slices.

The whole strata takes only minutes to assemble, from beginning the layering to pouring in the mixture of eggs, milk and seasonings. You can even do most of the assembly in advance and refrigerate the dish, covered, for up to several hours. Then, just add the beaten egg mixture and pop it into a preheated oven to bake. Add a simple salad with a light vinaigrette dressing and brunch is ready to serve.

SOUTHWESTERN STRATA WITH SAUSAGE

Serves 4 to 6

3/4 pound (375 g) mild to spicy Southwestern-style pork, turkey or chicken sausage, or chorizo, casings slit and removed

1/2 pound (250 g) stale sourdough bread, ciabatta or rosemary bread, cut into slices 3/4 inch (2 cm) thick

1 garlic clove, cut in half

1 cup shredded pepper Jack cheese

6 eggs, lightly beaten

2 cups (500 ml) milk

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon powdered mustard

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup fresh tomato salsa, for garnish

Heat a large, heavy nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and saute it, breaking it up into bite-sized chunks and stirring with a wooden spoon, until thoroughly cooked and lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the sausage pieces to several layers of paper towels to drain and cool.

Lightly oil or spray with nonstick cooking spray a 12-by-10-inch (30-by-25-cm) baking dish or gratin dish. Rub the bread slices on both sides with the cut sides of the garlic clove halves. Arrange all the slices in an even layer on the bottom of the baking dish. Sprinkle half the cheese over the bread. Arrange all the sausage pieces evenly on top, and then cover with the remaining cheese. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to bake.

Before baking, preheat the oven to 350 degrees (180 C). Remove the baking dish from the refrigerator and uncover it. In a mixing bowl, beat together the eggs, milk, salt, mustard powder and a little black pepper. Pour the mixture evenly over the ingredients in the baking dish.

Bake the strata until its top is slightly puffed like a souffle and golden brown, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and transfer onto individual heated serving plates. Pass the salsa separately for each person to add to taste.

Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays on the Food Network. Also, his latest cookbook, “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy,” is now available in bookstores.


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