Monday, January 19, 2015

An Elusive But Very Big Bean--And a Soup Recipe

Shortly after the earthquake that caused widespread damage in Napa, CA, last August, my husband and I revisited the city that had so captured our hearts (and appetites) the year before. Some buildings looked untouched while others--many ornate, vintage structures--showed visible damage and were surrounded by rubble from bricks and masonry that had fallen during the 6.0 temblor. Luckily for us, the more modern side of the town across the river fared well and was a beehive of activity. We wandered into The Fatted Calf, a popular charcuterie and butcher shop at the fabulous Oxbow Public Market, next door to the beloved Model Bakery, home to a world-renown English muffin (about which you can read elsewhere on this blog).

After buying a roast beef sandwich from the Fatted Calf, my gaze fell on a bag of the largest beans I'd ever encountered--white beans shaped like limas but about three times the size. Of course, being a longtime legume lover, I had to have them. I can't recall the price, (though at the website, most of the beans can be gotten for $5.95 per pound--plus shipping, which strikes me as eminently reasonable for rare, fresher-than-average beans). I bought the bag with the label sporting the picture of the pretty '40s-style woman with her tongue out, suggesting a hearty appetite--for beans, of course!

Rancho Gordo Royal Corona Beans, the label said, were "a big, fat super-creamy white runner bean that's even bigger when cooked." No kidding!

Heirloom beans are the foundation of the Napa-based company, the brainchild of Steve Sando, who writes a lively blog on the website and co-authored a 2008 book on heirloom bean varieties, cooking techniques and recipes. The website is also a great resource for cooking tips and recipes.

In addition to 37 varieties of beans offered for sale on its website (though not all are always available), the company also sells other bean-friendly goods, like chilies, spices, dried corn, rice and other grains. It has storefronts in Napa and San Francisco, and its products are carried in various specialty stores around the country.

Many of its beans are grown in Northern California, with others from Mexico, and some--like my beloved Royal Corona-- hailing from further afield. I discovered this after I used up the last of my beans in a tasty chicken, bean and kale soup and immediately went to the company's website hoping to order some more.

Alas, they were out of stock. When I put my name on the waiting list, I learned I was 98th, most likely behind some well-known chefs like Thomas Keller (Bouchon, French Laundry) and David Kinch (Manresa), all major Rancho Gordo fans apparently. In desperation, I wrote to Customer Service and heard back promptly from Pamela López:

"I'm glad to hear you've become a super fan of our Royal Corona!" she said in an email. "I must admit it's my favorite bean as well! Unfortunately for both of us, we won't be getting it  back for some time as it's harvested in Europe; it's from Poland to be precise. So imagine how long it takes for the beans to sprout and then the time it takes to get to the US... The time seems daunting but it's definitely in our near future, hopefully by the end of this year."

Ms. López chided me gently for letting my blog go to seed, so largely thanks to her (and a less subtle nudge from my hubby), I'm writing about that elusive bean, hoping perhaps my name will move up a few notches on the waiting list (please!). Meanwhile, Ms. López suggested that the company's cassoulet beans would be a good substitute, because, though not as large, they are equally creamy and delicious. Cannellini beans might be another good alternative.

One note on canned beans vs. fresh: Although I've used canned varieties on occasion, there is a definite taste and texture difference in beans that have been soaked overnight, then cooked until they've got just the right bite. There is a meaty firmness to cooked dry beans and more character than in the canned variety, which are a little too mushy for my taste. This is particularly true in heirloom beans that are harvested and sold within a short period of time. They also require less cooking time.

So, finally, here's a soup recipe in which the beans really play a starring role.  It's a variation on an Italian bean and kale soup I've made before. In addition to these meaty, creamy beans, a homemade chicken broth adds a great deal of flavor, along with some Parmesan rind added toward the end. You can use canned broth, but again, you'll sacrifice flavor. However, in a time crunch, it works just fine--especially when amped up with a little Parmesan.

Chicken, Bean & Kale Soup

(8 to 10 servings)


3 quarts (12 cups) homemade* or store-bought chicken broth
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 to 4  carrots, peeled and diced
3 to 4 stalks celery, diced
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
2 cups kale, washed, chopped and loosely packed
1/2 cup Italian parsley, chopped
2-3 cloves minced garlic
1 to 2 cups cooked Royal Corona, cassoulet or cannellini beans**
Parmigiano-Reggiano rind or 2-3 tablespoons grated Parmesan
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon dried or 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves 
1/2 teaspoon dried basil or 2 tablespoons fresh leaves, chopped
Other spices to taste
1/2 cup white wine (optional)
1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked chicken breast meat, chopped or shredded


*I made my chicken stock from the frozen carcasses of two leftover roast chickens, leftover gravy, two uncooked chicken backs, plus chopped onions, carrots, celery and spices that I simmered for about 1 1/2 hours, then strained. I added several cups of Trader Joe's Organic Low-Sodium Chicken Broth when the broth turned out not to be quite enough. If you make the stock ahead of time, a little fridge time will allow you to skim the fat off the top before making the soup.

**Directions for dried beans usually include soaking them overnight, then draining them and boiling until done. There are fast-soak methods that call for boiling dried beans for a few minutes, then letting them soak for an hour or so before cooking.


1. In a large skillet over a medium heat, add half the oil and fry chopped onions, celery, carrots and potatoes until softened and golden but not cooked through. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add to a stockpot, along with the chicken broth and bay leaf. Warm over a medium flame until simmering, then lower heat.

2. Add the remaining oil to the skillet and cook kale until lightly wilted on medium heat. Add parsley and garlic, cooking for another minute or two. Add to the stock pot along with the beans and Parmesan rinds, if using.

3. Add the beans, salt, pepper, thyme, basil, additional spices and wine, if using. Cook for about 15 minutes or until the vegetables are soft and the flavors are well combined.

4. Add cooked chicken right before serving.

5. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan and serve with a green salad and some crusty bread.

Buon appetito!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Farm-to-Cone: Blissing Out at Portland's Salt & Straw

It's our last evening in Oregon after two weeks of happy exploration that have taken us from river gorge to organic farmland to foggy coast and finally to Portland itself. We discover a city that has become a hopping food and wine (and beer) destination. We've just dined well for the second time at PaaDee, a hip yet cosy neighborhood Thai restaurant; we're getting ready to head back to our hotel to pack up for the return journey to L.A. the next morning.

"Let's just drive around a little," my husband Jeff suggests. "We really haven't seen much of Portland." We head toward a cool, artsy neighborhood he's read about, zigging and zagging down tree-lined streets with craftsman-style homes that make me want to move here permanently. A long line of people snakes down one side of Alberta Street. It's not a movie screening--just a lot of families making a beeline for what's become one of the most talked-about ice cream shops in Portland--Salt & Straw.

The wait is about a half hour, but we decide it'll be fun. We need something sweet to offset the salty, sour, spicy noodles we devoured at PaaDee.

I hobnob with the family in front of me. They include an excited 3-year-old boy whose father is twirling him upside down to keep him entertained. When his head accidentally bumps the pavement with a resounding thud, his parents comfort the child with descriptions of the delightful treat ahead. Walking distance from their house, Salt & Straw is the family's ice cream go-to destination, not just in summer but year-round. The flavors change seasonally, with all things berry popular in mid-July. This is the start of the berry season in Portland, with farmers market stands sporting colorful flats of raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, plus local berries seldom found elsewhere. Among these is the famed marionberry, a hybrid blackberry developed at Oregon State University in the 1940's and extremely prolific and popular in Portland and surrounding Willamette Valley.

The little boy, whose tears have miraculously vanished, has his heart set on the Strawberry with Lime Cilantro Cheesecake. "All the flavors are great here," his mom says--with the possible exception of the turkey ice cream that showed up last fall in time for Thanksgiving.

When we finally arrive at the front of the line, a young woman offers us tastes of as many flavors as we want. I try some of the top-sellers, including Goat Cheese Marionberry Habanero, Birthday Cakes & Blackberries, and Cucumber & Raspberry Sorbet. Somehow, I manage to skip Black Raspberries & Smoked Ham. Some popular non-berry flavors include Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbon, Chocolate with Gooey Brownies, and Pear with Blue Cheese. Just the names make my mouth water!

I settle for the vanilla (actual name: Double Fold Singing Dog Vanilla) and the raspberry sorbet. Jeff goes for a fresh waffle cone filled with Birthday Cakes & Blackberries and Sea Salt with Caramel. Unusual--and delicious! We both leave with satisfied smiles on our faces.  Not a bad way to end a vacation!

Just a word on Salt & Straw: Started almost exactly two years ago by two cousins, its website bills it as "Portland's farm-to-cone ice cream shop." The ice cream is made in small batches using "the best sustainable and organic ingredients Oregon has to offer," along with some ingredients sourced from "handpicked" farms and producers around the world, the site states. The Alberta store's interior is fairly retro, with reclaimed-wood shelves, vintage ice cream scoops and other goo-gas that date back to another era. Yet the flavor mixes have a definite 21st Century tease-your-tastebuds edge. 

For the moment, there are just three shops in Portland, but the word is out: Salt & Straw is coming to Los Angeles' Larchmont Village next month--and already has an ice cream truck roaming Southland roads. According to L.A. Times Daily Dish, the new store will feature California flavors and ingredients, like Stumptown coffee, olive oil and goat cheese. Sounds ok to me--just no turkey ice cream, please--unless you call it something else!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Reduced-Guilt Banana Bread

I debated whether to call this post Low-Fat Banana Bread or Multigrain Banana Bread, as the recipe from the Weight Watchers cookbook that inspired it labels the loaf. However, as I'm obsessive about food and always guilty about putting cake and other sweets in my mouth, I just thought I'd add the "Reduced-Guilt" modifier. Still, after you've downed two or three (or four) pieces, the guilt factor does go up, no matter that the points-plus count per Weight Watchers says only 4 points per slice (about 3/4 inch thick each of a 9-inch loaf). The only solution I've discovered is simply to give the treats away or hope that someone hungry comes to visit.

As for banana bread, it's truly a go-to staple for me, as it may be in many households where bananas are often neglected once they go from yellow to speckled brown to black. The reason for this, as I found after a quick Google search, is an enzyme called amylase that breaks down the starch in the banana and turns it sweet. Another enzyme softens the banana, while oxygen turns the peel brown. You can read more on this at the eHow website if you're so inclined. But the obvious truth that any banana lover discovers is that the fruit, when not eaten within a few days, ripens, turns black and has a soft and sweet but mushy interior. This is optimal for making banana bread but less so for slicing into your morning cornflakes.

I've made some terrific banana bread laden with butter, sugar and nuts--and calories. The one in the Weight Watchers Power Foods Cookbook uses a variety of flours, including oat bran, corn meal and whole wheat; oil in place of butter; and egg whites instead of whole eggs. The sugar content is lower than some other recipes I've tried, but not entirely absent; I've upped the sweet and crunchy factor by adding a topping of a few chopped nuts, a bit of sugar and cinnamon, and voila--Reduced-Guilt Banana Bread! (Couldn't call it "no-guilt" for obviously reasons).

Here's the recipe:

Reduced-Guilt Banana Bread

(Adapted from Weight Watchers' Power Foods Cookbook)

12 servings


1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour*
1/4 cup oat bran**
1/4 cup yellow cornmeal (fine or medium grind)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
 3 egg whites or 1/2 cup egg substitute***
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup canola oil
3 ripe bananas, peeled and mashed
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract

*The original recipe calls for whole wheat pastry flour.
**I used a mixture of oat, wheat and corn bran.
***I used Trader Joe's Cage-Free 100% Liquid Egg Whites.


3 tablespoons chopped walnuts
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 5x9-inch loaf pan with nonstick spray.

2. Whisk together the flours, bran, cornmeal, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl.

3. Mash ripe bananas with a fork in a small bowl and set aside.

4. With an electric mixer on medium speed--or by hand with a wooden spoon (my method)--beat the egg substitute or egg whites together with the sugar and oil until creamy. Add the mashed banana and vanilla or almond extract. Mix in the mixer or by hand until thoroughly combined.

5. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, stir the flour mixture into banana-egg mixture until just combined.

6. Mix together the topping of sugar, nuts and cinnamon and set aside.

7. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan, making sure it's evenly distributed. Sprinkle the nut and sugar mixture evenly on top.

8. Bake the loaf for 45 to 50 minutes, checking with a toothpick or skewer to make sure the center is done (if batter clings to the stick, it needs a few more minutes).

9. Cool in the pan on a rack for about 10 minutes before running a knife along the edges, turning over the pan and gently tapping onto the rack. Allow to cool completely before slicing (unless you can't resist cutting off a piece, which I never can!).

Points & Calories

(1 3/4-inch slice)

154 calories
5 points

Friday, January 31, 2014

Ricotta Pound Cake with Lemon Glaze

It's no secret that I love to bake. Given any excuse--company coming, neighbor in need, dinner invitation--I'm offering (begging!) to bring dessert. It gives me a chance to make something dense, sweet and caloric--and then to watch it disappear before I have a chance to lose my will power. Of course, I do grab a sample or two along the way--how else to know if it came out right?

For a recent family gathering, I decided to make a ricotta lemon pound cake recipe that I discovered on the web after tasting something similar at a friend's house. Unlike many pound cakes I've sampled over the years, which are often a little on the dry side, this one had a rich, creamy texture, with a distinctive tangy lemon flavor from the glaze I dripped over the top and sides. The magic combination of sliced strawberries and a side of Three Twins vanilla bean ice cream made this a memorable dessert that will surely have an encore very soon at my table.

The recipe for the cake is from the website What2Cook. The glaze is adapted from one I found in The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion. The cake took me about 15 minutes to throw together, the glaze about 5 minutes. Using orange zest and juice in place of lemon would yield a result that was a little less tangy but equally delicious.

Lemon Ricotta Pound Cake


Ingredients (Cake)

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups (13 ounces) whole-milk ricotta cheese
1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest of 1 to 2 lemons
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Ingredients (Glaze)

1/4 cup (2 ounces) fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) sugar
Zest of 1 small lemon


1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Generously grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan (or 3 mini loaf pans) with butter. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and baking powder.

2. Cream together butter and sugar in a mixer, adding the ricotta and blending until smooth--about 3 minutes.

3. With the mixer running, add the eggs one at a time. Then add the vanilla, lemon zest and juice, mixing until combined.

4. Add the flour mixture a little at a time until just incorporated. In order not to over-mix, I usually remove the bowl from the mixer and use a wooden spoon or silicone spatula for this step.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan or mini pans. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes for the large loaf, 40 to 45 for the smaller ones, or until a toothpick comes out clean or the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan. If loaf is browning too fast but isn't done inside, loosely cover it with foil for the final minutes.

6.  Let the cake cool for at least 15 to 20 minutes before trying to remove it from the pan. As it's fairly moist, taking out the loaf while it's still hot might cause half of it to stay behind--not a happy outcome! When it's cool, run a knife around the edges, turn over the pan and gently tap it onto a rack. Allow the cake to cool for a few minutes or overnight before applying a glaze or, alternately, sifting some powdered sugar over the top.

7. For the glaze: Combine the lemon juice, sugar and zest in a small sauce pan, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Don't allow the mixture to boil. When the cake has cooled, poke small holes in the surface with a toothpick or cake tester. Gradually drizzle the glaze over the top, spreading with a pastry brush or spatula onto the top and sides. Garnish with sliced strawberries or other fruit if you like.

Monday, January 27, 2014

1 Egg + 2 Egg Whites + Veggies = Boffo Omelet

We're still on a weight-loss kick at my house, though my husband's been much more rigorous about it than I--and the results are in: He's lost 10 pounds! As I haven't had the courage to step on the scale following the shock of discovering in the doctor's office that I'd piled on a few over the holidays, I can't report on my progress. Of course, this head-in-the-sand approach is a definite no-no when it comes to taking off weight. But I have been eating healthier, which is a start anyway.

Here's a delicious, easy-to-make omelet that was inspired by one of my favorite Weight Watchers recipes for a one-egg, two-egg white omelet. The combination, on the WW plan is only two points, as the two egg whites aren't counted, though, obviously, they do have calories (about 34 in 2 large egg whites, plus about 72 calories for a large egg). The benefit for those of us with cholesterol issues is that egg whites have no cholesterol, though they also have fewer nutrients than yolks (check out the American Egg Board's Incredible Egg nutrition page), which contain generous amounts of Vitamins A, D and E, though, surprisingly, egg whites have slightly more protein. I like adding the one egg for extra flavor and color, though you could make the omelet with all egg whites (I'd use four egg whites total).

While my husband sticks faithfully to his 2-ingredient omelet--Trader Joe's ReddiEgg (or TJ's 100% Liquid Egg Whites), plus a generous sprinkling of Trader Giotto's Parmesan & Romano cheese (see my post on Living With a Picky Eater)--I like to make myself the two-point omelet, which I jazz up a bit by frying a few onions or scallions, sliced mushrooms, chopped red pepper and a sprinkling of Parmesan--fresh grated, if I have it. This last adds another point or two and a few calories, but a lot more flavor. Of course, salt, pepper and a few spices don't hurt either. The best trick is cooking the omelet in a nonstick pan; I'm partial to my 8-inch Bialetti ceramic fryer. I heat the pan a few seconds and use just a spray or two of oil on the surface before adding the veggies, followed by the beaten egg. Served with a spicy splash of Sriracha or salsa, wrapped in a tortilla or served au naturel, this omelet is a boffo breakfast to jump-start your day. But watch out: It's so easy to whip together, it may become habit-forming!

Parmesan Veggie Omelet

1 large egg
2 large egg whites
2-3 tablespoons chopped veggies*
Vegetable oil spray
1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese**
Salt and pepper, to taste
Italian or other seasoning of your choice, to taste

*I used 1 green onion, 1/8 of a red pepper, 2-3 chopped mushrooms, but chopped spinach, tomatoes or other choices would also work.

** Sometimes I add or substitute a tablespoon or two of no-fat or low-fat feta.


1. Put the whole egg in a small bowl. Separate 2 eggs and add whites to the egg, saving yolks for another use. Beat eggs lightly with a fork until combined but not whipped to a froth.

2. Dice green or regular onions and red pepper, if using. Thinly slice mushrooms. Chop red peppers. Heat a small skillet or omelet pan, preferably nonstick, on low to medium heat. Spray lightly with oil. Add veggies and fry for 1 to 2 minutes on medium heat until lightly golden.

3. Add egg mixture to the fried veggies, adding another spray of oil if need be. Sprinkle with cheese, salt, pepper and additional seasoning.

4. Lightly tip pan to make sure that egg reaches to the edges. When egg has set for a minute or so, use a spatula (rubber or plastic for a nonstick pan) to pull edges of the egg toward the middle slightly, tipping pan to allow the liquid egg to flow into the spaces along the edge of the omelet.

5. When the omelet is almost set, flip it over on itself and ease out onto a plate.

6. Garnish as you wish, with a sprinkle of parmesan, paprika, a dash of hot sauce or salsa. If you wish, add a slice of toast or wrap up in a tortilla--or serve with a dollop of yogurt or cottage cheese on the side.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

To Lose Weight, Track What You Eat

A page from my 12-week Weight Watchers tracker. It helps
keeps me honest--except when I cheat!
I cooked and baked like crazy during the holidays. I also stopped a longtime practice of tracking my food, something that helped me lose more than 60 pounds through Weight Watchers a few years back. Like almost everyone else I know, I rationalized my recent descent into indiscriminate snacking and splurging with the usual excuses: "It's just a few pounds. I'm still much thinner than I was." "I've been through a lot. I deserve to eat this whole piece of cake--and the cookies too!" "I'm a food blogger--how can I write about something without sampling it first?"

Unfortunately, you can't fool the scale--or the doctor. I gained 10 pounds during the holidays (on top of 10 I'd already gained), and my cholesterol level skyrocketed. OK, I can rationalize that too--they weighed me and took the blood sample after breakfast. Of course it must be inaccurate. But the truth is, it's time to 'fess up and drop some of those extra lbs, inches and bad habits. Both my husband and I are working hard at the gym--he with a trainer, me trying to do it on my own. Fewer carbs, more fruits, veggies and protein. I bought another 12-week "Plan & Track" journal at Weight Watchers, though I haven't rejoined--yet. However, my last stint was three-years, so the Points-Plus system is fairly second-nature to me: 26 daily points, plus a 49 extra to play with for the week. If you exercise daily, so much the better--you can eat a little more, but if you don't eat the extra points, the weight may come off faster. As for me, I'm just trying to get my splurging under control--and perhaps lose some of that extra girth. The first step is to step on that scale and face the music. The next step is tracking, tracking, tracking!

Several studies have shown that writing down what you eat--or keeping track of it through a food app--helps people lose weight. One study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and discussed on WebMD, showed that people who kept a food diary six days a week lost twice as much weight as those who kept a diary one day a week or less. Basically, the practice of journaling makes you more aware--or "mindful"-- of what you're putting in your mouth. How easy is it to snack on those leftover hors d'oeuvres before tucking them away in the fridge and forget you actually consumed half a tray of bruschetta and goat cheese, plus a plate of mini wienies? How hard is it to wrap that lonely leftover piece of chocolate cake for later consumption rather than stuffing it in your mouth--or, better yet, to toss it into the garbage to avoid future temptation? Writing down what you eat forces you to own your excesses.

So what's the takeaway? My husband's perennial injunction: "Time for that starvation diet!" sounds a bit extreme. Instead I prefer an old-fashioned, measured approach: the written food diary. He, on the other hand, uses the free calorie-counting app, myfitnesspal. "It's great," he says. "They have a great database of food and restaurants, and it keeps you on track." He particularly likes the calculator that he uses with the exercise app, Runtastic, to figure out how many calories he's burned working out at the gym, walking or biking, so he can adjust his calorie intake for the day. His single-minded focus on losing weight is rubbing off on me--at least a little. If he's going to lose 30 pounds, I'm good for at least those extra 10! I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

New Year's Brunch: Spinach and Cheese Strata

Cheese Strata ready to bake. 

When visitors come calling, I can get frenetic if I haven't prepared ahead of time. A bit like a jack-in-the-box, I'm up, I'm down, then up again--to the stove, the refrigerator, the table, the sink, chopping up the last-minute salad, throwing together a cheese plate, rounding up the drinks and a vegetarian dish for a non-meat eater. Of course, I flash back to my mother, who never seemed to sit for any length of time, so intent was she on the last-minute prep that went into the evening meal, whether it was for the family or for a house full of relatives or guests.

The other day, a small group of women gathered at my house for our monthly writing group. To reduce the work for the host, the guests often bring a small lunch, while the host prepares a side dish or two. My guests were arriving at 10 a.m., so I thought a small breakfast/brunch was in order, but I didn't feel like worrying over a pan of scrambled eggs--they're not my forte anyway. I thought an eggy casserole might be in order, so I turned to another of my trusty cookbooks, Ruth Reichl's The Gourmet Cookbook--a big yellow tome of a book brimming with practical and delicious recipes. Under breakfast, I found one that struck my fancy: "Spinach and Cheese Strata": bread cubes, spinach, butter, cheese and eggs--fairly simply, something that could be prepared the night before and then baked and served the morning of. What could be easier? it worked out pretty much as planned--and went over very well. Here's the recipe.

Spinach and Cheese Strata

8 to 10 servings

(Adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook)


1 10-ounce package frozen spinach, thawed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, finely chopped (1 1/2 cups)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg*
1/2 to 1 lb. French or Italian bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
(about 8 to 10 cups)
2 cups coarsely grated Gruyere cheese (about 6 ounces)
1 cup finely grated fresh Parmesan cheese**
2 3/4 cups whole milk
9 large eggs
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

*The recipe calls for freshly grated nutmeg, but I used a commercial variety, and the results were just fine.

**The recipe calls for Parmigiano-Reggiano, but I used a less expensive variety of Parmesan. Again, I think the casserole didn't suffer.


1. After defrosting spinach, squeeze out as much liquid as possible. I put the spinach in a colander and pressed with a spoon to accomplish this.

2. Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over moderate heat. Add the chopped onion and cook until softened, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper and the nutmeg, cooking and stirring for another minute. Stir in the spinach and then remove from the heat.

3. Butter a shallow 3-quart gratin dish or other shallow casserole dish. (I used a 14-inch oval ceramic dish that was a wedding present from an English aunt many years ago.)

4.  Chop a loaf of Italian or French bread into cubes, starting with half the loaf, then cubing more as needed.  (I prefer the large loaves to the skinny, baguettes, which have too much crust and too little doughy interior.) Spread one-third of the bread cubes in the bottom of the casserole dish. Top with one-third of the spinach mixture. Sprinkle with one-third each of the cheeses. Then repeat two more times, topping with the final layer of cheese. (Because of the size of my dish, I found that I used virtually an entire loaf of bread and didn't quite have enough of the spinach mixture, so next time I make the dish I may increase the amount of spinach, butter and onion by a third.)

5. In a large bowl, whisk together milk, eggs, mustard and remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper. You can also add other spices if you like, such as paprika, perhaps a sprinkling of chopped fresh herbs, such as rosemary, thyme and parsley.

6. Carefully pour the egg mixture over the casserole, making sure to distribute the liquid evenly. (I used a small ladle to do the pouring, as my ingredients were almost overflowing the dish, then added a sprinkle of paprika on top for color.)

7. Cover the casserole and refrigerate for at least 8 hours to allow the bread to absorb the liquid. (I refrigerated it overnight, which worked out perfectly for my next-day brunch.)

8. When you're ready to bake the casserole, remove it from the refrigerator and allow it to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before popping it into a preheated 350 degree F oven.

9. Bake uncovered for 45 to 55 minutes until golden brown on top. To make sure the casserole is cooked through, cut into it to see if the bottom is firm. If it seems a bit soft and liquidy, return to the oven for a few more minutes, checking to make sure that it doesn't brown too much on top. (I made the mistake of leaving the casserole in the oven, which I had switched off, after serving several pieces to my friends. When I took it out later, meaning to serve some more, it had browned a bit too much on top. However, it was still excellent and soft inside, easily re-heated in the oven or microwave for several days thereafter--and actually better two days later than on the day I served it!)


1. Adding mushrooms or substituting cooked fresh spinach or kale for the frozen spinach might be an excellent variation. Again, I would make sure to remove as much liquid as possible from the vegetables before adding them to the casserole.

2. Amping up the heat with some chopped spicy chilies, using milder red peppers, or a combination, plus switching from Gruyere to a medium sharp cheddar might be another interesting variation. In this case, I might add a dash of spicy tomato salsa or Sriracha to heighten the flavor.

3. It's possible to lighten the casserole by using low-fat milk, reduced-fat cheeses and even an egg substitute or egg whites for some of the eggs. However, the resulting casserole won't be as satisfying and flavorful. My theory of weight control--and, believe me, it has been and continues to be a major challenge in my life--is that it's better to eat what you want, just less of it. Otherwise, you feel so deprived that in a weak or stressful moment, you embark on a binge--much worse than having that one piece of chocolate cake or square of spinach and cheese strata.

Happy New Year!

A bouquet of alstroemerias from a good friend
 brings sunshine into my house on a gloomy day.