This article is part of a special series called "Books and Food". I have loved books long before I ever got interested in the culinary arts. Short stories, novels, biographies and travelogues, I love them all. Human life is inextricably linked to food, and books often use descriptions of feasts and famines, dinner rituals and food memories to bring a point across to the reader. In this series, I talk about my favorite books and the food passages therein, and make a dish or a meal inspired by the book.
Today's book: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith
The food: Breakfast strata
For the fourth of July, I chose an American classic. Betty Smith's "A tree grows in Brooklyn" is the story of a girl named Francie Nolan growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. A fascinating portrait of life in an impoverished neighborhood, the story ends up so unexpectedly heartwarming and realistic that it stays with you long after you are done reading the book. Even during hard times, Francie's mother, Katie, stretches her resources to provide hot meals for her family. It is far too easy to go shopping and cook impressively on a big budget. The truly creative and resourceful cook is someone like Katie, working with the stale bread that is the staple of their diet:
"The Nolans practically lived on that stale bread amd what amazing things Katie could make from it! She'd take a loaf of stale bread, pour boiling water over it, work it up into a paste, flavor it with salt, pepper, thyme, minced onion and an egg (if eggs were cheap), and bake it in the oven. When it was good and brown, she made a sauce from half a cup of ketchup, two cups of boiling water, seasoning, a dash of strong coffee, thickened it with flour and poured it over the baked stuff. It was good, hot, tasty and staying. What was left over, was sliced thin the next day and fried in hot bacon fat.
Mama made a very fine bread pudding from slices of stale bread, sugar, cinnamon and a penny apple sliced thin. When this was baked brown, sugar was melted and poured over the top. Sometimes she made what she had named Weg Geschnissen, which laboriously translated meant something made with bread bits that usually would be thrown away. Bits of bread were dipped into a batter made from flour, water, salt and an egg and then fried in deep hot fat. While they were frying, Francie ran down to the candy store and bought a penny's worth of brown rock candy. This was crushed with a rolling pin and sprinkled on top of the fried bits just before eating. The crystals didn't quite melt and that made it wonderful"
In honor of every last crust of stale bread, I put together this breakfast strata. It is a fridge-cleaning "recipe", if you even want to call it a recipe. This is just a "Throw in whatever you got" kind of dish. I love making this on Saturday mornings to clean out the fridge before I head out to the Farmer's Market for my weekly groceries. It gets me off to a fresh start on weekends.
Stale bread, cut into small cubes (about 2 cups)
Splash of milk or cream
Some sliced onions
Assorted veggies (peppers are good if you have any) (1 cup in all)
Assorted cheeses (shredded) (1/2 cup)
Salt and Pepper
1. Saute the onions and veggies together. Set aside.
2. Beat the eggs together with cream/milk, salt and pepper.
3. Coat a gratin dish with non-stick spray. Layer with veggies, then bread cubes.
4. Pour the egg mixture over the bread cubes so that it soaks into the bread.
5. Top with the shredded cheese and herbs, if using.
6. Bake at 350 degrees F for 15-20 minutes, till egg is cooked (knife should come clean) and cheese is golden.
You never need to throw out any old bread: Stale Bread was the theme of a recent IMBB (food event) hosted by Derrick of An Obsession with Food. Read the round-ups here, here and here for a plethora of ideas on what to do with left-over bread. Another dish I love making with stale bread: Bread Pakoras!