‘Optional’ is the new recipe buzzword, as we cook our way through this pandemic

Michael Ruhlman

THE WASHINGTON POST – The societal effects of the coronavirus utterly transformed one of the most difficult words in the world of recipes: optional. What did optional mean, pre-pandemic, and what does it mean now?

It is a new world. Optional has at last taken a prominence in recipes I could only have dreamed of.

I happen to be sheltering with my wife who follows recipes the way one follows instructions for putting together a PAX wardrobe from Ikea – every step and amount executed exactly.

I am a rules and recipes questioner. Who made the rule? Why? Toward what end? As far as I am concerned, anything not actually named in the title of the recipe can be considered optional.

Recipes are not, and cannot be, instruction manuals. In the end, dishes are not put together the way that wardrobe from Ikea is. Recipes are sheet music. The pages can be played with nuance and grace, or not so much – Bach’s cello suites played by Pablo Casals vs the same sheet music performed by a first-year student.

Sausage and Spinach Breakfast Strata. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

I’m hoping that one of the things we gain from the pandemic is a brave new world of cooking.


Active: 40 minutes | Total: One and a half hours

Eight servings

Storage Notes: The cooked strata can be refrigerated for up to three days.


Eight ounces fresh spinach

Two teaspoons olive oil, or your preferred oil, or more for greasing

Half Spanish onion cut into large dice

One teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

One pound fresh sausage, casings removed, crumbled

Six large eggs

Three cups milk

Two teaspoons dry mustard

Quarter teaspoon cayenne pepper

Freshly ground black pepper

Eight cups cubed bread, day-old or dried in a low oven

Three cups coarsely shredded cheddar cheese, divided


Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the spinach, pushing down to submerge. Blanch for about one minute; then strain into a colander. Rinse the spinach under cold running water until cool. Wring the spinach out well and coarsely chop it.

Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Oil a nine-by-13-inch baking dish.

In a skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onion and season with salt. Cook, stirring, until the onion is tender, about three minutes. Add the sausage and cook, stirring and breaking up the meat as you go, until just browned, about four minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and transfer the sausage and onion to a paper towel-lined plate.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, then whisk in the half-and-half, mustard, one teaspoon of salt, cayenne and several grinds of black pepper until uniformly combined. Add the reserved sausage and onions, spinach, bread and one cup of the cheese and toss, pressing the bread down so it soaks up the custard. Transfer this mixture to the prepared baking dish. Top evenly with the remaining two cups of cheese.

Let the strata sit for at least 15 minutes and up to one hour before baking, or cover and refrigerate for up to three days before baking.

Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, until the eggs are set. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Nutrition | Calories: 632; Total Fat: 41g; Saturated Fat: 19g; Cholesterol: 308mg; Sodium: 1183mg; Carbohydrates: 33g; Dietary Fibre: 2g; Sugars: 2g; Protein: 32g.