Friday, January 16, 2009

92. Spinach and Cheese Strata (655)

Every year, my father-in-law cooks a great big beef roast for Christmas dinner ... a Roast Beast, if you will. For my semi-veg wife, this always poses a bit of a problem, which we solve by bringing a vegetarian entree for the buffet table.

In the past, she's made a delicious strata from Cooking Light, and she was in the mood for it again. But since the dessert I chose to make for Christmas wasn't coming from The Book (more on that in a minute), I offered to make this recipe so that I wouldn't let a cooking opportunity pass without ticking a recipe off toward The Project.

Strata is essentially a savory bread pudding, and while it's usually served for brunch (it's in The Book's "Breakfast and Brunch" chapter), it can be substantial enough to be a main course in a vegeterian lunch or dinner. This recipe, in my opinion, is equally at home in either setting.

The recipe is pretty easy to make. It can (and, in fact, probably should) be made ahead of time. First, I cooked some chopped onions in some butter, salt, pepper and nutmeg until they were soft. Then I stirred in some chopped frozen spinach, which had been thawed and squeezed (sqouzen?) to get out the extra moisture. I set that aside for a moment while I spread a layer of bread cubes on a buttered baking dish. I topped the bread with a third of the spinach mixture and some grated Gruyère and Parmigiano-Reggiano. The Book says to "layer" the ingredients in the baking dish. (The name "strata" even suggests layers.) However, while I followed this instruction as best as I could, there were no clearly discernable "layers" in my strata. Instead, the ingredients were, what I would call, "evenly distributed." Then I whisked together some eggs (and by "some," I mean nine!), milk, salt, pepper and Dijon mustard. I poured this over the strata, wrapped it tightly with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator for a long winter's nap. On Christmas morning, I baked the strata, wrapped it up in foil and took it to my in-laws' for dinner.

This was a delicious dish. It was savory and flavorful. Spinach and nutmeg are best friends, and the Dijon mustard added some depth to the flavors. It was cheesy and buttery - rich without being overwhelming. Although intended as a vegetarian main course option, I enjoyed it as a side dish with the roast - it kind of reminded me of a Yorkshire Pudding, or at least served a similar purpose.

Now, I'll tell you about the other thing that I made for Christmas, but that I can't get any credit for toward The Project. As I was flipping through The Book looking for something to make for dessert for Christmas, this recipe for tiramisu caught my eye. I told my mother-in-law that I was making it, and she was thrilled (it's a favorite of hers), and I really began to get my heart set on having it for dessert. Well, as the week went on and I kept reading and re-reading the recipe, I became more and more concerned about the uncooked eggs in the recipe. With a pregnant wife, and several small children and some elderly people at Christmas dinner, even a small risk of salmonella poisoning was unacceptable. So, I had two options, either deep-six the tiramisu, or find some alternative to raw eggs. I opted to stay the course and find a work-around. Egg Beaters weren't an option because the recipe calls for both the egg whites and the yolks. For a minute, I was encouraged to read about pasteurized-in-the-shell eggs on the Internets. But after calling every grocery store I could think of and turning up empty, I learned that the distribution of these eggs is very limited due to poor sales. Then I looked into pasteurizing eggs at home. It looked promising, but in the end I chickened out (we're talking about my pregnant wife's health here), and I opted for this egg-free version of tiramisu from Cooking Light instead. It was good, but I'm sure The Book's version was better.

All of this got me to thinking, there are several recipes in The Book that call for raw or undercooked eggs. What's a home cook (who actually cares about the health and well-being of the people he's feeding) to do when faced with a recipe calling for uncooked eggs? I know that the risk of salmonella is low, but it's real enough to give me pause. What do you do? Please share your ideas and suggestions in the comments.

Date Cooked: December 24-25, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
Rating: A-


Teena said...

I have had the same problem. Many of the desserts I have left are for just that reason -- I am scared to poison a crowd of people! If all you need is egg whites, there are a lot of pasteurized egg white products out there (including powdered egg whites, which are pretty easy to find). I use those sometimes, but they don't whip quite as well as unpasteurized whites, which could be a problem in some recipes. As far as pasteurized whole eggs -- I can't find them either. So far I have restricted myself to cooking the raw egg recipes either only for myself and my special gentleman, or cooking them for a group of people who have been properly warned (for example, when I had a mayonnaise tasting and made all the mayos in The Book). If it is any comfort, the risk of getting salmonella from an egg is really, really small. But, like you, I would never risk it with a pregnant woman, a child, or someone elderly.

Bertha P said...

I just don't understand why safe food options aren't available for people. We should demand them.

Please call the headquarters of the grocery where you do your shopping and tell them you don't want to risk your family's health with unpasteurized shell eggs.

It worked when I did it. I buy them all the time now.