Monday, January 14, 2013

Feeding A Colony Of Artists

Breakfast, Anyone?

A bunch of us working.  I like the celestial light.
This Thursday, Friday and Saturday this merry gang of Original Sinners:

Franca Sofia Barchiesi               
Paul Bernardo
Lauren Coppola
+Estefania Fadul
+Lindsey Gates
Chris Grabowski
Brough Hansen
Maggie Lacey
Liz McLaughlin
Phil Mills
Rahaleh Nassri
+Eric Sutton
+Alex Trow
+Steven Wooley

will be going up to the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center

on an artists' retreat so we can work on the first four books of PARADISE LOST

I am not including "play board games" on the schedule, although that's what I'm planning we do every night after dinner until midnight or so.


I think we're going to call these books, the first of three installments, OUT OF HELL, as it chronicles Satan's journey out of Hell and to Paradise.  It turns out that planning the retreat is a whole lotta fun as well - making up the schedule, creating the room assignments, figuring out transportation.

And of course, putting together the menus.

Although the idea of rehearsing for twenty hours in a three-day period and making six meals for a group of 14 is appealing, I decided to call in some help on this one.  Enter Chris Grabowski, director and cook extraordinaire, who was also my directing mentor at Vassar College, when I was a wee little thing.


The first menu decision Chris and I made was to let lunch be a delicious but simple array of cold cuts from which the company could assemble sandwiches.  In this country, lunch is the neglected middle child of meals, and for reasons of simplicity, I wasn't going to change that (even though I'm a middle child, and there's a great reading of Paradise Lost in which Satan is the middle child, sandwiched between Jesus and Man.  And when I say "a great reading," I clearly mean one I made up myself last week).  To dazzle lunch up a bit, because even a middle child deserves some bling, I'm going to make the mayo from scratch, a not very hard thing to do if you've got a food processor, and it's hella delicious.  I use this recipe from the NY Times:


I asked Chris to take over the dinners, because they're harder, and also because I love making breakfast.  Breakfast is a sexy meal, and during my single days, I'd love to see what I could whip up in whatever foreign kitchen I found myself (if this hasn't been made into a reality show, it obvi should be).

My proving-to-be-invaluable assistants, Steven Wooley and Estafania Fadul, and I spent a few hours this weekend figuring out the logistics, and they've created menu books and ingredient spread sheets and lots of other things to make our lives easier.

For one breakfast, I figured I'd put my money where my mouth is (god knows I've put everything else there) and make the tofu scramble that I posted about earlier, served over quinoa.


For my second breakfast, I'm going to make a strata, an Italian breakfast casserole dish that lives somewhere in the exquisite space between quiche, casserole and heaven.  I made this dish for the getting-to-know-you brunch I hosted for my FARRAGUT NORTH cast a few weeks before we started rehearsal.  Clearly it did the trick - link to our NY Times review here.  A strata is a great way to feed lots of people well.  I'm tripling the recipe, and making one of the portions without chorizo (an ingredient I add as homage to the Mexicans I'm marrying into) so that the vegetarians can dive in.

From what I understand, what amateur food bloggers like myself are supposed to do is take a recipe I like, make marginal changes to it, and then publish it as my own.  But there are some things that are sacrosanct even to a double genocide descendant such as myself, and one of them is the cookbook that basically helped me (re-)discover my love for cooking.  It is The New Best Recipe, the cookbook from the editors of Cook's Illustrated.


Although the a few of the recipes are occasionally more complicated than they ought to be (the chicken parm takes like two hours to make), everything is so well researched, so clear, and so specific that it takes all the annoying guess work out of cooking and pretty much guarantees a successful product (if theater had an equivalent handbook, I guarantee you I would've committed it to memory by now).  I especially recommend it for beginning cooks, because I find its meticulousness as I wander into unknown territory especially comforting.  When I made this strata the first time for my FARRAGUT NORTH cast (another great review here from some local NJ rag) I had never eaten, let alone made a strata.  But I followed the good book, and it did not lead me astray.

Here's the recipe.  Stay tuned for updates from our retreat, pictures of the food we make, and Chris's dinner recipes!


Breakfast Strata with Spinach and Gruyere
To weight down the assembled strata, use two 1 pound
boxes of brown or powdered sugar, laid side by side over
the plastic-covered surface. To double this recipe or the
variation that follows, use a 13 by 9 inch baking dish
greased with 1.5 tablespoons butter and increase the baking
times as suggested in each recipe.

Breakfast Strata

8-10 (1/2-inch-thick) slices supermarket French or
This is not a strata I made, but rather, the image of one I found online.
Italian bread
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
4 medium shallots, minced
1 (l0-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach,
thawed and squeezed dry
Salt and ground black pepper
½ cup medium-dry white wine, such as
Sauvignon Blanc
6 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated
6 large eggs
1 ¾ cups half-and-half

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position
and heat the oven to 225 degrees. Arrange the
bread in a single layer on a large baking sheet
and bake until dry and crisp, about 40 minutes,
turning the slices over halfway through the drying time. (Alternatively, leave the slices out over night to dry.) When the bread has cooled, butter the slices on one side with 2 tablespoons of the butter; set aside.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a medium
nonstick skillet over medium heat. Saute the shallots  
until fragrant and translucent, about 3 minutes;
add the spinach and salt and pepper to taste
and cook, stirring occasionally, until combined,
about 2 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl; set
aside. Add the wine to the skillet, increase the heat
to medium-high, and simmer until reduced to 1/4
cup, 2 to 3 minutes; set aside.

3. Butter an 8-inch square baking dish with
the remaining 1 tablespoon butter; arrange half of
the bread slices buttered-side up in a single layer
in the dish. Sprinkle half of the spinach mixture,
then ½ cup grated cheese evenly over the bread
slices. Arrange the remaining bread slices in a single
layer over the cheese; sprinkle the remaining
spinach mixture and another 1/2 cup cheese evenly
over the bread. Whisk the eggs in a medium bowl
until combined; whisk in the reduced wine, the
half-and-half, 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste.
Pour the egg mixture evenly over the bread layers;
cover the surface flush with plastic wrap' weight
down (see note), and refrigerate at least 1 hour or
up to overnight.

4. Remove the dish from the refrigerator
and let stand at room temperature 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, adjust an oven rack to the middle
position and heat the oven to 325 degrees'
Uncover the strata and sprinkle the remaining
1/2 cup cheese evenly over the surface. Bake until
both the edges and the center are puffed and the
edges have pulled away slightly from the sides of
the dish, 50 to 55 minutes (or about 60 minutes
for a doubled recipe). Cool on a wire rack for
5 minutes; serve.


  1. Enjoy the O' of my favorite places...but it's much better in the summer (the beach beckons...)

  2. I love the combo of recipes and theater dishing. Your retreat sounds delicious. Cook's Illustrated has rarely led me astray. What makes a strata different than a frittata - the bread/egg ratio? Any why not fresh spinach? I hate squeezing frozen, so I always wonder what's the diff.

  3. Heather - I think of frittatas are much eggier - almost omlette'esque, really. When the strata is brilliant, as mine was this last weekend, the hardened bread soaks up the egg and half and half, but then bakes into an almost savory french toast, layered with deliciousness.