RECIPE: Gruyere & Prosciutto Strata

Creativity was not a word in my mother’s kitchen. Though she made meals nearly every night when I was growing up, my mother did not like to cook. She herself had been raised on a bland Norwegian-based Midwestern diet which, when incorporated into my father’s meat-and-potatoes mentality, meant that seasonings and color — especially any form of fresh vegetable! — were seriously missing from the dinner table in our house. Her eight menus rotated with predictable regularity (Monday, meatloaf; Tuesday, Swiss steak) through our dinner hours. If I never have any of them again the rest of my life, that’s just fine with me.

Some kids, like Chris, for example, react to indifferent food by learning to create something more palatable. But while I made whatever meals it took to pass my Girl Scout cooking merit badge, and later, Home Ec, I had no interest in becoming the next Galloping Gourmet. What I did like to do was bake. Cakes, cookies, desserts. Anything sweet. I knew I’d be hard-pressed to ruin a cookie recipe so thoroughly I wouldn’t eat the results anyway.
Such a background comes as a surprise to many guests who assume I grew up loving to cook, that my flair for the creative, in cooking and in presentation, must be a lifelong skill. Or even better, that I’ve attended culinary school. Ha! What I am is a foodie who is learning continuously how ingredients play off one another, and who has found that cooking and baking offer opportunities for another form of creativity. And creativity in all forms makes my heart sing.
Which is why I am so very gratified when someone visiting A Butler’s Manor asks for one of my recipes. Wow, me?!?
This is adapted from a recipe I originally found at Williams-Sonoma, and is fairly new to my repertoire –which, for the record, is continually being added to and adapted when necessary. Never let it be said that if it’s Tuesday, it must be Banana French Toast!


350 oven

10 servings
1-2                    large leeks, white and light green parts only, cleaned and chopped
2          tsp.       olive oil           
1                      bag seasoned croutons
15                     eggs (or two cartons Egg Beaters)
2          cups     milk
4          cups     grated Gruyere cheese
4          oz.        prosciutto, coarsely chopped
Preheat oven to 350.  Coat a 15” x 10” Pyrex dish with olive oil cooking spray. Toss croutons with olive oil and scatter in prepared pan. 
Whisk together flour, milk, butter, salt and eggs and pour over croutons in prepared pan. Let soak for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, steam leeks for about three minutes; drain. Sprinkle cheese and leeks over egg and bread mixture and stir in. Sprinkle chopped prosciutto on top.
Bake until casserole is set and light golden brown, 35-40 minutes.
Bon appétit!
Quote of the Day: I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate. —Julia Child

Party out of bounds?

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Chris, as I’ve said often, has a spectacular green thumb, so nearly everything he plants thrives here in the garden at A Butler’s Manor. And we have this pergola over the porch which seemed just perfect for a climbing something. So we planted a grapevine.

The first year, it just settled itself in the soil and began to carve out its path. By year two, we already had a crop to harvest, and I got out Grandma’s recipe for jelly and made my first attempt at grape jelly. (It was…interesting. I didn’t serve it to guests.)

By year three, we had a substantial amount of grapes, and the leaves and vines had formed a pretty extensive canopy over the top of the porch. But we discovered something: The fauna knew better than we did when those grapes were ready to be harvested. The night we said “Yep, they should be ready about tomorrow,” the squirrels and raccoons moved in for a munchfest.

And they’re not even polite about it. They pull the grapes from the bunch, chew the soft inside, and spit seeds and skins all over the porch. Discovering the mess the next day, we hurriedly harvested the remainder of the grapes. (Second attempt at grape jelly? Let’s just say Welch’s needn’t fear any competition from me.)

I’ve been watching this year’s bumper crop of grapes mature, thinking that we really ought to make a pre-emptive strike and cut the grapes before the critters get them. Then, with the hurricane and Labor Day weekend, we got forgot all about it.

Last night, the raccoons broke into the grapes and had themselves a party. From our bedroom, we could hear the grapes plunking down onto the wooden deck. And then, after they’d gotten good and drunk on the grapes, they ran around most of the rest of the night, chasing each other and playing on the roof adjacent to the grapevine…right over the top of our bed. I swear it was like listening to a teenage party, lacking only the loud music.

Today that grapevine came down. All the way down. I don’t make good grape jelly anyway, and as for making wine….well, I KNOW I can’t make wine I’d like better than the stuff I buy!

I expect there is going to be confusion here tonight…a bunch of critters wandering around wondering where the party went. May they go far away in order to find it!

Next year, I’m thinking a clematis…

A Butler’s Manor: 1. Hurricane Irene: 0.

“Storm? What storm?”

Remember the old song? “What a difference a day makes / twenty-four little hours…”

A week ago we were battening down the hatches in preparation for Hurricane Irene, the first hurricane in twenty years to seriously threaten Long Island. (The last one was Hurricane Bob which struck in August 1991, twenty years almost to the day.) While there is never a good time for a hurricane, the end of August is particularly problematic, because so many people are trying to get their final vacation time in before Labor Day signals school and the beginning of fall. Hence we had a full house to cancel in anticipation of the lady’s wrath.

This, of course, was a Big News Event, with All Hurricane All The Time coverage on the local networks. Call me cynical, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the fact that Irene looked likely to wallop New York City increased the news value. In any case, we all watched her progress with dread.

Even with the most advanced meteorological equipment, everyone knows that in the end storms are never 100% predictable, so making decisions in anticipation of them is a crapshoot. Chris and I had never experienced a hurricane — we moved to the South Fork in early 1992, and the two storms that have made it up the East Coast in our memory both fizzled out. But Irene was a hefty lady, with shoulders some 500 miles wide. So Chris arranged help to make shutters for all the windows, and got our trusty tree guy over to thin out our massive Sycamore Maple and trim any other likely large trees in order to lessen their drag in a heavy windstorm. Out came the generator, fired up and tested, out came the extension cords, the flashlights, the candles, the radios…

We bid adieu to all our guests midday Saturday, and started packing everything away and shuttering up the first floor of the house. My sister Lisa, visiting from California, rebooked her flight home, started packing up bags of ice and filling the bathtubs and prepared to experience a weather event that can at least be watched and prepared for (unlike an earthquake).

Southampton Town officials ordered evacuation of waterfront and low-lying properties, and closed the beach to the public at 2 PM…which did not stop hundreds of us from going down to watch the waves, which were angry and quickening. For us, the rain began late afternoon Saturday and worsened overnight, just as predicted. Winds picked up speed after midnight and there were bursts of heavy rain, sounding like hail, in the wee hours. We lost power, telephone and cable about 8 AM on Sunday. Fortunately, the stove runs on propane gas, and with the refrigerator plugged into the generator, food wasn’t an issue. With the windows boarded up, it was a weird feeling!!!. About 11 AM, unable to stand it, Chris took down the shutters blocking the kitchen, so we could at least see out.

We heard on the emergency radio that Irene had weakened to a tropical storm and made landfall in NYC around 9 AM. Outside, the wind was blowing, but there was little to no rain. Up and down the street we could see tree damage on most properties, but Chris’s pre-emptive strike seemed to save us from the same fate. Early afternoon, with the storm now north of us, we drove around town to assess the damage, which seemed to be limited to tree loss and power line damages. We joined the crowd of lookie-loos at the beach. Winds there were much more intense than at A Butler’s Manor. It was nearly impossible to gaze northwestward, into the wind, and all exposed skin got a sandblasting. Beaches were considerably shallower than they had been 36 hours previously, but still there. While our block had no power, friends a mile to the west of us did, as did areas in the village and all around it. Several restaurants were even open, including Fellingham’s, so we ordered take out burgers and settled in for an evening of games.

In cleaning up the yard the following day, we didn’t have a branch down any bigger around than a finger, no more than the effects of a good nor’easter. The biggest task was cleaning the pool of the fallen leaves, and resetting the outdoor furniture. And of course, post-Irene, the weather was picture perfect, not a cloud in the sky or speck of humidity in the air. By the time power was restored on Monday evening, the house and garden looked better than it had looked before the storm, and guests who arrived on Tuesday couldn’t believe a storm had actually passed over the property.

In fact, the garden seemed to love Irene’s kiss: clean up the following day allowed for some late-season pruning and raking, and all the roses went into bloom again!

My poor sister went home on Tuesday afternoon. Some vacation!

A Butler’s Manor, Southampton, and all of the villages of the Hamptons are open for business this sunny, lovely Labor Day weekend…and we feel very blessed that Irene only backhanded us!