As September draws to a close, I find myself both anticipating and dreading the full glory of fall in New England. As much as I love its pleasures (mulled cider, pumpkin soup, popcorn balls for Halloween), my animal brain knows that with the turning of the leaves also comes the distant whisper of winter. Even the knowledge that snow is still months away is not enough to soothe me, for winter and I have never been at ease with one another.
At the farmers' market, the stalls are setting up with squash and celery root and bitter greens, and the raspberries seem almost too bright, like embers that flare scarlet just before they turn to grey ash. When I gaze at the produce, I am seized by a sense of craving that has nothing to do with appetite. I wonder if the red squirrels I see in the mornings on my way to class feel the same way when they look at the acorns scattered beneath the oak trees.
I have been provisioning for the winter. Every trip I have made to the farmer's market in the past month has included purchases for future consumption. A second pint of raspberries, an extra pound of plums. Buying the promise of brightness, of sweetness to break the dead whiteness in the winter to come.
I lack the knowledge and equipment for canning. I doubt I could eat so much jam, anyway. But raspberries can be frozen just as they are, and stone fruit will freeze in a light bath of sugar and liquor. Yellow nectarines with dark brown sugar and amaretto. White peaches with light brown sugar and vanilla essence. Dusky, blue-skinned prune plums with white sugar and apple brandy.
My freezer space is limited, however, so I have been on a quest to remove everything that does not have to remain frozen. Last year's beef stock has finally found a home in carrot soup. Mediocre cake has become the base for luscious fruit trifle. And my "bread bag," an accumulation of odd bits of stale bread, has been emptied to make strata.
Like French toast, ribollita, and pappa al pomodoro, strata belongs to the family of preparations intended to prolong the life of a loaf of bread. It's the savory answer to bread pudding - a dish of stale bread cubes soaked in a mixture of eggs and milk, seasoned with whatever is handy, and baked until the center is agreeably soft and the top pleasantly browned.
Though strata is usually considered a brunch dish (and it does make for a satisfying meal late on Sunday morning), I find its warmth and softness comforting on chilly evenings, and so I like to prepare it as a light supper. Leftovers become breakfast the next day, and I find that they only improve after a night in the fridge.
The only downside is that I won't be making any more for the next few months. Not until I've made more room in the freezer, at least.
Sundried Tomato and Caramelized Onion Strata
The ingredients for strata are by no means fixed. Consider this recipe a starting point: feel free to add bacon or sausage if you would like meat, or black olives and artichoke hearts if you'd like something more Mediterranean.
(Serves one, with leftovers that are good for breakfast or lunch the next day.)
Take a small ceramic or glass baking dish, about seven inches or so in diameter, and rub it well with olive oil. Set aside.
Saute one finely sliced yellow onion in a little olive oil until soft and caramelized. Season with salt, dried mint and oregano, and deglaze the pan with a little water or white wine. Add the onion to a mixing bowl, and toss well with two or three handfuls of stale bread cubes (roughly two cups). Transfer the mixture to your baking dish.
Beat together two eggs, one cup of milk, and a generous pinch of salt. Add a handful of dried tomatoes, cut into strips. Give the mixture a good stir, and pour it into the baking dish. Set the baking dish in the fridge for at least an hour to give the bread some time to soften.
When you're ready to bake the strata, preheat the oven to 350F. Grate half a cup of strong cheese (Parmesan or sharp cheddar are good choices), and sprinkle it over the contents of the baking dish.
Bake for forty minutes or so, or until the top is nicely browned, and a knife stuck in the middle comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for five to ten minutes before serving. Green salad is a nice accompaniment.