To many The Brunch is more than just a meal served between 10AM and 3PM. It is a sacrament. I don’t know how my own VERY serious approach to brunch began but that is the way I now roll. It is unlikely I will change on this. The Brunch not only provides me an opportunity to create a highly nuanced culinary preparation served at peculiar hours; it perhaps more importantly provides me with a stage to show off mad cooking skills and the colorful serving platters I have collected at local flea markets.
So when my spinster sister called a couple of weeks ago to ask if she could host the annual birthday brunch I throw for our dad I was not too happy about it.
“But why? What did he ever do to you?”
Sis’s inability to cook is now the stuff of legend thanks to this blog. Dinner invitations to her place are not to be accepted if you have not had your inoculations and at least a two week course of probiotics. Sis’s usual breakfast buffet features a row of multicolored cereal boxes and a jug of milk sitting out on the counter. Her cereal bowls don’t match (gasp!) and, well, would it kill her to buy a real platter from Williams Sonoma so that her store-bought cinnamon rolls won’t have to be served on a pressed aluminum tray?
Our dad has been quite supportive and extremely generous to both of us throughout the years so it seemed particularly cruel to subject him to one of her train-wreck meal events in return.
“Girl, we want to celebrate him not bury him.”
“I’m serious Trevor!”
So was I.
In the moment I opted not to express my usual contempt for her cooking and entertaining skills. I have learned that sometimes it is best to let her believe I am joking — even when I’m not. I knew I was serious. She knew I was serious. I knew she knew I was serious and she knew it. She may not know how to make a cup of tea she is otherwise she is very knowledgeable.
It is just like my sister to get the purpose of brunch entirely wrong. I conceived our annual celebration as a way to show off the antique serving ware and the vintage cake stand I hid in the garage all year long for that moment where I could nonchalantly take it to the table as if it were no big deal.
My sis just wanted to show off her recessed lighting and the new bathroom tile grout.
What was she thinking she would cook for us? If I didn’t know what an expert plumber she was I would have suspected she had lead pipes leaching brain damaging minerals or microbes into her water supply. She was clearly having delusions of culinary aptitude.
“At least let me bring something. What can I bring?”
“How about everything?”
Wow. She played me like a fiddle. Of course, her idea was perfect and a wonderful compromise. We negotiated a bit more. I would go to her house the night before and do all the cooking and bring all the serving pieces and she would install my new porch lights and fix the washer blades on my car in exchange.
Everyone is happy.
I dusted off my cake plate and the vintage Villaroy and Boch oven-to-table casserole dishes and went to work on what I consider one of the best make ahead brunch dishes I know how to make. Yes, this Tomato and Spinach Strata dirties a few pots and pans but they will be all cleaned the night before leaving you with nothing to do in the morning except popping it in the oven.
Even my sister can handle that.
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 suggest that if you do this you make the full tomato sauce recipe and freeze what you don’t use for a future pasta dinner or another strata. You can save time by using a store bought sauce but if you do that, use the freshest kind your market carries 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:
This is what you will need:
- 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.
- 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
This is how you make it:
- Heat olive oil in a large heavy non-stick saucepan over medium heat.
- Add 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, 15-20 minutes.
- Remove the bay leaf.
- Stir in the parsley and season with salt and pepper.
- Let cool.
- 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.
The sauce can be made ahead and stored, covered , in the refrigerator for up to two days.