Sacramental Supper (with Cheese-Spinach Strata recipe)
Sacramentum, the Latin dictionary tells us, means “sign of the sacred.” Is it sacrilegious, then, to call a plain old supper, one that simmered on the back burner all day long, one thought through, from spattered sheaf of follow-along instructions clear through to pop-from-a-tube biscuits, is it sacrilegious to call a lump of root vegetables and beef, ones swimming all day long in thyme and bay leaf, crushed tomatoes with a splash of red wine vinegar, is it sacrilegious to call it sacramental?
I think not.
To serve up what amounts to depths of heart, to say in mashed potatoes and Irish butter, “I love you dearly, and I’m so sorry I’ve been distracted. So sorry I’ve been heating up old soup, chicken pot pie from a box.” To say, with store-bought pumpkin pie, under a swirl of canned whipped cream (I splurged on the one that shouted, “Extra Creamy!”): “Forgive me for making it seem like something else might have been more top-of-the-to-do-list than carving out the blessed half hour (let’s not be greedy here) when we all sit down and savor pay-attention cooking. And each other.”
Because, really, I think we can taste the difference. Oh, umami is umami. And sweet is sweet. But don’t the hours of stirring, of simmering, of thinking something through—not whipping it off in the last ten minutes before the hunger sirens screech—doesn’t it all find its way deep down into the deliciousness that doesn’t come through shortcut piled atop shortcut?
By suppertime, when the tableau beyond the panes of glass had gone inky black, when the glow of the kitchen lamp spilled gold across the table, the vapors that rose from the big, red smash-your-toes cook pot, the vapors that trespassed out of the oven crept up the stairs to where homework was being done.
Before I’d said a word, the stovetop’s incense was deep at work. The house was filled with something surely holy, for what else can you call it when you claim a whole long day to aim for higher?
To say in smell and taste and temperature and touch what words alone just might not say: You are worth it to me to spend a whole day cooking just for you. I’ve not lost sight of my holiest calling, to carve out a hallowed space here in this place of walls and windows and creaky floors and solid roof, to be the one reliable source of all that’s good, that’s edifying. To fill you with warm spoonfuls—as much as you want, there’s plenty here. And I’ve made it beautiful because you are, because beauty speaks to the deep-down whole of us. And you so richly deserve every morsel I can muster.
The day was chilly brisk. I did what I could to make the kitchen glow, the holy light of heaven here on earth. And to fill those who came to the chairs at long day’s end.
Far as I can tell, that’s a sacrament, a sign of the sacred. With a fat splat of butter drooling off the plate.
Provenance: Gourmet magazine
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
- 1 (10-oz) package frozen spinach, thawed
- 1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion (1 large)
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 8 cups cubed (1 inch) French or Italian bread (1/2 lb)
- 6 oz coarsely grated Gruyère (2 cups)
- 2 oz finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 cup)
- 2 3/4 cups milk
- 9 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Squeeze handfuls of spinach to remove as much liquid as possible, then finely chop.
Cook onion in butter in a large heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring, until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and nutmeg and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in spinach, then remove from heat.
Spread one-third of bread cubes in a buttered 3-quart gratin dish or other shallow ceramic baking dish and top evenly with one third of spinach mixture. Sprinkle with one third of each cheese. Repeat layering twice (ending with cheeses).
Whisk together milk, eggs, mustard, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl and pour evenly over strata. Chill strata, covered with plastic wrap, at least 8 hours (for bread to absorb custard).
Preheat oven to 350°F. Let strata stand at room temperature 30 minutes.
Bake strata, uncovered, in middle of oven until puffed, golden brown, and cooked through, 45 to 55 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Cook’s’note: Strata can be chilled up to 1 day. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before baking.
Copyright 2017 Barbara Mahany
Introductory text excerpted from Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving, by Barbara Mahany (Abingdon Press, 2017)
About the author: Barbara Mahany is an author and freelance journalist in Chicago, who writes these days about stumbling on the sacred amid the cacophony of the modern-day domestic melee. She was a reporter and feature writer at the Chicago Tribune for nearly 30 years, and before that a pediatric oncology nurse at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Mahany’s first book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door, has been called “a field guide into the depths of your holiest hours.” Publishers Weekly picked it as one of the Top 10 religion books for 2014, fall crop. A sought-after speaker, retreat leader, and writing teacher, she lives in the Chicago area with her husband, the Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, Blair Kamin, and their two sons. Learn more at BarbaraMahany.com.