by Douglas Abrams
New York Times food writer Mark Bittman–this student foodies’ blogger idol–finally told us what he eats when he’s not on the job: pasta, vegetables, salad, and fish. Not his favorite comfort food, per se, but his “comfort zone,” the kinds of foods, that for whatever reason, he feels comfortable making.
So, in the spirit of full disclosure and because I love copying Mark Bittman, I want to share my comfort zone: casseroles.
When I initially set off to make a casserole, I was thinking of cooking a cheesy pasta casseroles, or a rice and chicken casseroles filled with peas and carrots. But it’s way too hot out to eat hot food. Just too hot. Instead, I cooked the one casserole that I knew could be eaten chilled or at room-temperature: strata (savory bread pudding).
This recipe breaks down into three variable components: bread, custard, and filling.
For the first component all you’ll need is enough one inch cubes of bread to fill the casserole dish that you’re using. Any kind works. You can use white or whole wheat, rye or a baguette, english muffins or the bagged thanksgiving stuffing croutons like my mom does. If you can, try to use stale bread or week-old bread, so that it will better absorb the custard. But if you can’t, no biggie. I just used Pepperidge Farm white.
The second component is slightly more complicated. In a large bowl, whisk six eggs with about a cup of milk, a half cup of cheddar cheese, and salt and pepper. This egg-to-milk ratio is by no means exact. Every time I make a strata I just use however many eggs I have. You just want a custard that’s mostly eggs and you want there to be enough of it to cover all the bread cubes in the casserole dish.
The third and most important component is the filling. I tend to use an amalgam of whatever frozen and fresh vegetables and (sometimes) meats I have lying around in my fridge. I do, however, always cut up whatever I use into a small dice and cook it with a spanish onion and two cloves of garlic. I often use peas, corn, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, peppers, leafy greens like spinach and kale, and even sausage. If you use meat just make sure to precook it before putting it into the casserole. The filling is the flavor component of the strata. Get creative, use unusual flavor combinations, and, above all, use what flavors you like.
To assemble the casserole, layer the bread cubes with the filling until the casserole dish is filled. Then, submerge everything in the custard. Allow the dish to sit in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes to give the bread some time to soak up the custard. Top it with another half cup (or more) of cheddar cheese and bake it in a 350 degree oven for about an hour. You know the casserole is done when all the liquid is absorbed by the bread and the casserole is completely solid.
What I like about strata is that it works in many configurations. The custard is adjustable, so is the bread, and so is the filling. It is my go-to for using up old ingredients lying in the back of my fridge and in the corner of my cupboards. It is my comfort zone, and I love it.