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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Chicken Sausage and Gruyere Strata

+ a trip to Trader's:

On Saturday, I took an hour and a half stretch class at a ballet studio in Rockville. As I grumbled along, hitting pot holes and red lights, I took the time to scout out a Trader Joe's I had heard was nearby. In the web of small Asian groceries, yoga studios, gas stations and "high rise" apartment buildings, I found it. Sure, we had a Trader's back home, but I had only been there once in a feverish panic looking for mochi: I had bulldozed through the first frozen food isle, found the last three boxes of green tea mochi, and b-lined for the check-out. I can't remember why I was in such a hurry to begin with, but I am glad I was.

My first real Trader's experience was, probably, made yet more blissful by the brilliant sunlight, and rush of endorphins and lactic acid being released from every fibrous IT band and tendon in my body. Although I was on a mission to acquisition sausage, plum tomatoes, bread and Gruyere cheese for the Sunday breakfast I was planning for my house mates, I took my time browsing the isles. I was in 7th heaven. The layout of the store itself was not quite what I was expecting, but less than five minutes in the cereal isle, and a quick peek in the dried fruit section sold me. They could suspend boxes of bow-tie pasta from the ceiling for all I care. All those hard to find ingredients like flax seeds, high fiber cereals, dried (un-sweetened) mango, Bartlett pear and even strawberries were right out in the open. No more searching bottom shelves or settling for the only brand available. Here, there were choices, and considerably low prices. I was so engulfed in my discoveries, I almost forgot one of the key ingredients I was looking for: sausage.

Luckily, I remembered before I got in the check-out line. There were 5 different flavors of chicken sausage lined up, and every packaged was made with pasture-raised chicken! No artificial ingredients, preservatives or even sausage casings! Amen. Rapture ensued, but I managed to make it out of the store in good time. I even enjoyed an all-nature fruit and fiber bar on the way to car. It was glorious, and I highly recommended a trip to your local Trader's as a means of dismissing the winter weather blues. I think it even helped ward off sore muscles.

Why did I go to Trader's to being with? Well, I have been enjoying the generous culinary efforts of my house mates/hosts for two full weeks now, without preparing a single dish. Since I was planning on staying in town this weekend, I vowed to whip something up for Sunday brunch before my trip downtown. This strata (a layered egg and bread dish) caught my attention immediately. I loved the idea of big cubes of bread soaking up eggs and milk and then being baked, much like a savory bread pudding. Although the recipe said it was a crowd pleaser (and it was), I did make some alterations. Firstly, the idea of using a spongy wheat sandwich bread didn't sound very appealing. I am all about fiber, but I just couldn't imagine it with anything less than eggy and barely sweet like a brioche or challah. But, since I couldn't find either brioche or challah, I picked up a crispy loaf of French bread. I also used a chicken sausage infused with sun-dried tomatoes instead of the turkey the recipe called for - it was just what struck my fancy. When Sunday morning rolled around, things went swimmingly. The strata is dense and moist but with a lot of structure. The cheese creates a crispy web on top of the eggs and bread, helping it keep it together and making it much easier to serve. And, unlike most breakfast casseroles, the strata comes out moist, but not greasy. I attributed this to the chicken sausage (with 60% less fat than pork sausage); which, I drained after cooking, and the absence of the traditional cheddar cheese.

Notes: The recipe was very warmly received, and could be eaten for dinner (with a nice tossed salad), reheated for lunch as well as for breakfast with some fresh fruit. I prepped the dish the night before, so Sunday I could sleep in. If you can't find a sun-dried tomato infused sausage, you're probably not shopping at Trader Joe's... But, you could always substitute some sliced roasted red pepper or soft sun dried tomatoes sliced finely and tossed in with the bread and sausage. In fact, you might want to do that anyway. The strata cooks for 30-45 minutes, leaving just enough time to slice up a nice bright fruit salad to serve with it. Definitely, worth a trip to Trader's.

+ a trip to Trader's:

Chicken Sausage and Gruyere Strata
Variation on the "Sausage, Cheese and Tomato Strata" from "Betty Crocker Whole Grains"
Serves 12

1 lb chicken sausage
1 French baguette, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 7 cups)
2 cups Gruyere cheese
2 cups chopped plum tomatoes (drained slightly)
6 eggs
2 cups milk
2 teaspoons dried basil leaves
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt

The night before (or at least 2 hours before baking)
1. Spray a 9x13" baking dish with cooking spray, or rub with butter.
2. Dice the bread into 1" cubes and place in the prepared baking dish.
3. Slice the sausage and cook in a sauce pan with a little butter or olive oil until it is browned. Drain on a paper towel before adding to the bread.
4. Sprinkle the bread and sausage with 1 1/2 cups of the cheese. Dice the tomatoes, pouring off most of the liquid before adding the bread mixture.
5. In a bowl mix the eggs, milk, basil, mustard and salt. Pour evenly over the bread mixture and season with black pepper. Cover tightly; refrigerate for no longer than 24 hours (but at least 2 hours before baking).

To bake
6. Heat the oven to 350. Uncover the dish and bake for 35-40, or until a knife inserted in the center of the dish comes out clean.
7. Let the strata cool slightly before serving.

*Photos to follow shortly; as soon as we find Burrito's camera cord. Again.

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