Sharing secrets of a 'dump cook'

Jim Grant/Nevada AppealThe ingredients in stratas - layered casseroles - can be "dumped" together in a variety of ways.

Jim Grant/Nevada AppealThe ingredients in stratas - layered casseroles - can be "dumped" together in a variety of ways.

Stratas (layered casseroles for breakfast or brunch) are the perfect vehicles for explaining the concept "dump cook," a condition to which I readily confess. Indeed, the hardest part of giving away recipes requested by guests at our Bed and Breakfast or writing this column for the Nevada Appeal, is quantifying the ingredients. "How much zucchini?" "More seasoning?" "Add some garlic? Onion? Peppers?"

Sometimes being a dump cook is just "This needs something," "Not thick enough - more flour?" "We're out of cheddar - or Swiss, or ?" Often, it's simply a question of using whatever is on hand, and creating from scratch. Or perhaps you want to recreate an entree you recently had at a restaurant. So, you might start with a single taste or ingredient around which you create a dish.

In the case of stratas, there's a whole class of recipes that are very similar. All have very different names - stratas, bread puddings, timbales, quiches, souffles and "puffs." They are mostly egg based; most have dairy (cheese and milk), and most also have bread or bread crumbs; some just use flour. These are simply patterns that are quite consistent. Most have vegetables and or meat - often cooked sausage - and some have fruit and soft cheese like cream cheese. Many are best prepared ahead of time, and allowed to rest in the refrigerator for several hours, to allow the bread to soak up the liquids and flavors before baking.

The sides, sauces and beverages make the difference between an ordinary presentation, and a special meal. For instance, if you've created a Mexican-leaning strata, you might want to accompany the main dish with salsas, guacamole, sour cream, and Mexican hot chocolate or a pitcher of sangria. A bread pudding might have a lovely lemon sauce and whipped cream.

So, the sky's the limit! The strata "recipe" for today isn't really a recipe; it provides guidelines to help you make up your own special dish.


STRATA WITH VARIATIONS

Stratas can be made sweet or savory, vegetarian or with meat, with cheese or without, to serve many, or just two, but they are always made ahead and baked just before serving. They are really easy to make, and no matter what you do, they always seem to be tasty.

The basic recipe serves 4 to 6. It can be halved, doubled, or tripled.

Butter (or spray with Pam) a 2 to 3 quart (or larger, if necessary) oven-to-table low baking dish and set aside.

Gather these ingredients:

One to four cups cubed yeast bread of your choosing - sourdough, challah, raisin bread, artisan wheat bread, etc.

Mix and set aside 2 cups milk and 4 to 8 eggs. Add seasonings appropriate to your other choices - chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, etc.

Lightly sauteed vegetables and/or meats of your choosing (about 1-2 cups). Choices might be - onions, zucchini, mushrooms, peppers for a savory strata. Or apples, apricots or mango for a sweet strata.

Grated or cubed cheese - a little (1/2 cup) or a lot (2 cups). Choices for a savory strata could be Swiss, cheddar, and jack; and for a sweet strata could be cream cheese or chevre.

To assemble the strata:

Layer the bread on the bottom of the casserole dish.

Make the next layer of vegetables, meats or fruits.

Top with a cheese layer.

Pour the milk-egg mix over all and press any floating bread or other stuff down into the liquid.

Cover with Saran-type wrap, and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight. Bring to room temperature before baking.

When ready to bake, remove covering, and put in a 350 to 375 oven until puffed and lightly browned (about 30 minutes for a small one, up to 50 minutes for a larger one.)

Serve with salsa, sour cream, guacamole, etc. for a savory strata, and perhaps whipped cream or fruit syrups for a sweet strata.


• Muffy Vhay and her husband David own and operate the Deer Run Ranch Bed and Breakfast in Washoe Valley.

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