Monday, July 2, 2012

Time to Get Cookin'!

I am going to be super efficient today...

I need to create some make-ahead meals for summer company, I haven't blogged since last week, and I haven't blogged about cooking or included a recipe for a very long time, sooooo

I am going to blog about whipping up some make-ahead meals while I'm whipping up the make-ahead meals!

We always have TONS of company every summer...I mean, we are almost a regular Bed & Breakfast!

The first two summers we moved here we had non-stop company for the entire months of July and August, with only 4 days without guests the first summer and only 3 days without guests the second summer, and some of those visitors' stays actually overlapped!  It was a frenzied time of changing sheets, making beds, filling guest baskets, planning meals, shopping for meals, cooking meals, driving to the falls and the beach and downtown Portland and then doing that over and over and over again!  There were times our guests arrived before the sheets were even finished washing from the last guests!  There were nights when we threw a bunch of guys in a tent in our backyard so we could free up more bedroom space for adults.  There were times I had to borrow towels from my mother because we had 30 teenagers on every inch of floor in our house and I just didn't have enough to go around.  I'm sure we must have spent a couple thousand dollars on food, entertainment, gas, and the water bill and lost a lot of wages taking time off work!  But through it all, we had a blast and made some really great memories (and I've got a ton of pictures at Silver Creek Falls to prove it!).  I also gained a lot of experience and picked up some tricks along the way, and one thing I learned was how to cook smart.

So, to get ready for the summer guests of 2012, I thought I'd make a couple favorites and share one of my tried-and-true dishes with you (but I have to admit that I'm a little afraid one of my regular blog readers is going to recognize the Italian strata when she comes to visit me!)

Today I made strata two a savory dish, Italian Strata, and the other a sweet dish, Baked French Toast.  Both freeze beautifully and both taste great.  Both are worthy of company when served with fresh local fruit and excellent coffee.

If you don't know it, a strata is an egg-milk-and-bread dish with endless variations.  It is served hot, usually for breakfast/brunch but when combined with a salad it can be lunch, a light supper, or even dessert!

The Base
a great loaf of bread, 8 eggs and 3 cups of milk

The Seasonings
for savory add Italian seasoning, a dash of tobasco sauce, dry mustard, red pepper flakes...
for sweet, add vanilla, cinnamon, orange zest, nutmeg...

The Add-In's
for savory try pre-cooked sausage, bacon or ham, sauteed onions and peppers, spinach, sundried tomato, pre-cooked broccoli or asparagus tips, crab or shrimp, 2 cups of cheese (cheddar, swiss, jack, feta, mozza)
for sweet try diced apple, raisins, berries, cream cheese

The Toppings
for savory toss on some fresh tomato, a sprinkle of parmesan, fresh herbs, guacamole
for sweet drizzle on some warm maple syrup, add a dollop of vanilla yogurt, scatter some toasted nuts, sprinkle on some granola...if dessert, try caramel sauce and ice cream!

Now watch how easy this is:

1.  Grab a 9 x 13 baking dish.  Either butter it for flavor or spritz it with olive oil for health.

Use the wrapper from the cube of butter!
Works great and no waste
I love my oil spritzer!

2.  Slice or tear your bread.  Be sure to buy excellent quality, artisan bread.  Day-old is actually better, so often you can get it for a good price.  For my baked french toast I used challah bread.  This is a wonderful bread, very soft and slightly sweet.  Also delicious is a loaf of cinnamon-raisin bread.  I sliced the bread and arranged the slices in the baking dish "shingle" style.  For the Italian strata, I used a loaf of artisan French bread and tore it by hand into rough, bite-sized chunks.  An Italian loaf or pugliese or even cheese bread is also a yummy choice.  Don't use ciabatta, as it's pretty chewy.  Don't use the crusts if they are tough.  And only use sourdough if you really, really like the taste.

3.  Mix the batter.  So simple, just beat 8 eggs and add 3 cups of milk.  If you're making the baked French toast or a dessert strata (very much like bread pudding), you can swap the milk out and use half-n-half, if you prefer a richer taste and texture.

Brown eggs or white?  Just a matter of what kind of
feed the chicken eats!

4.  Add the seasonings.  For my Italian strata I added a couple dashes of tobasco sauce, a teaspoon of dry mustard, and a tablespoon of Italian seasoning.  For the French toast I added a tablespoon of vanilla, real cinnamon, and a dash of nutmeg.  Give the batter another beating to incorporate the seasonings.

5.  Sprinkle on the add-ins.  For the Italian strata I sauteed onions, peppers, garlic scapes and sweet Italian sausage (I used chicken, a little bit healthier than pork!).  Then I added shredded colby-jack cheese.  For the French toast, I simply scattered some golden raisins across the bread.
This I's olive oil infused with garlic,
great for lightly sauteeing veggies (and I
have a friend who likes to pop popcorn with it
and then sprinkle on butter and parmesan cheese)

Betcha don't know what this is!
Garlic new discovery.  They are the tops of garlic
cloves (sort of like the green of a green onion).  They have a
mild garlic flavor that is perfect when you want just a hint of flavor.

6.  Pour on the batter and soak.  Pour slowly so the bread can absorb the batter, otherwise you might end up with a spill-over!  Once all the batter is poured, cover the dish with foil and refrigerate 8 hours (all day if you make it in the morning or overnight if you make it at night).  Then transfer it to the freezer.  Tip:  Take a Sharpie and write on top of the foil what the dish is and baking instructions, so when you go to the freezer when you're company comes you'll know what you're taking out and what to do with it!

7.  Top It!  When it's time to serve the dish, take it out of the freezer the night before and let it thaw in the oven.  Set your oven for timed bake, so it will come on automatically and you can sleep an extra half an hour!  It takes an hour and a half to bake and another 15 minutes to "set," so you'll have plenty of time to slice some fruit, make coffee, and set the table nicely.  When it comes out of the oven, you can add toppings, if you like.  To my Italian strata, I will top it with a sprinkle of grated parmesan, fresh tomato slices and fresh-cracked pepper.  For my baked French toast, I will sprinkle on some toasted pecans and a little homemade granola and then I'll drizzle it with warm maple syrup.  Tip:  For amazing syrup, use grade B real maple syrup.  It's darker and richer and more flavorful.  Then add 4 tablespoons of butter and heat it up.  Pour it all over the French toast.

And that's it!  Two great dishes ready to go.  And now here are some delicious variations for you to try, and hopefully these ideas will stimulate your imagination to create your own yummy combinations!

Classic - diced ham, broccoli and cheddar
Greek - sundried tomato, artichoke hearts, black olives, spinach, feta cheese
Lorraine - crumbled bacon, sauteed onion, swiss cheese
Country - diced baby reds (pre-cooked), colby cheese, crumbled breakfast sausage
BLT - bacon, leek and fresh tomato, mozza cheese
Mexican - ground beef w/taco seasoning, cheddar or cotija cheese, onion and top with pico de gallo and avocado
Seafood - shrimp or crab, swiss cheese, green onion
Veggie - sauteed zucchini, asparagus, peppers, onion, spinach and pepper-jack cheese, top with fresh tomato
Berries and Cream - fresh berries and little cubes of cream cheese, serve with berry syrup
Apple-Cinnamon - dice tart apples and sautee in butter.  Add cinnamon and brown sugar and then mix with bread cubes.
Decadent Dessert - Try using apple fritters or cinnamon rolls in place of plain bread, then top with warm caramel sauce and ice cream
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