How to make a dish that delivers warmth at home, even when you're not there

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

I've always been called to travel — driving through the desert, looking for the next cool diner, windows-down kind of travel.

I began funding my travel as a teenager, selling food at festivals and in concert parking lots. I'd earn enough to buy gas to get to the next show and visit places like Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park in my downtime. I didn't really settle down until I launched a culinary, and then a newspaper, career.

I've since found that it doesn't have to be one or the other. I now have a job that allows me to spend time looking for the best fried seafood on the Alabama coast. I've traveled to Western North Carolina to camp at a hog farm. I'll crisscross Kentucky this month, learning about the deep history of bourbon-making in the state.

A "glamping" tent at Smoky Mountain Mangalitsa Farm.

I'll still sometimes take a detour to catch a concert along the way, though my days of selling veggie burgers and burritos are long gone. There is one other key difference between now and those days: the 6-year-old daughter who stays at home with dad when I'm traveling. 

Since my love language is food, I can feel a stab of guilt when I'm settling down to a nice meal and a glass of wine after a day spent at work in another state. It makes me feel a bit better when I know my family has something nice to eat, although my daughter could happily down frozen pizza every day. Parents with careers that sometimes take them far away likely know the feeling.

It's worth noting here that my husband is more than capable of feeding our daughter. For me, leaving something warm and comforting behind is more of a love note than an obligation. I may stick a lasagna or eggplant parmesan in the freezer. I may leave behind a breakfast casserole when I've left before dawn to get to an early assignment in another state. 

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This week, I'll embark on another complicated journey that involves taking a plane, then jumping in a car, then moving to an RV. I'll be gone for a few days, and then will be hosting extended family for a few days upon my return. Freezer meals, including the breakfast strata below, are on the agenda.

This recipe also makes a great drop-off meal for someone who's feeling sick or a family who just welcomed a brand-new baby. It's like a warm hug you can deliver whether you're there in person or not. 

Do Ahead Breakfast Strata

Make-ahead breakfast strata

This recipe, from the Southern Kitchen archive, was originally developed by Anne Byrn. Learn more about Anne and her books at www.annebyrn.com.

This is an easy meal to make in advance. It's best left in the refrigerator overnight to let the egg and milk mixture soak well into the bread, which serves as the binder for this hearty and warming breakfast dish. The best bread to use is anything soft and spongy. You can leave the crust on for more texture, or remove the crust for a more uniformly soft casserole.  

This recipe is also endlessly adaptable. You can use different vegetables, as long as they're not too wet. You can remove the water from spinach and other similar vegetables by rubbing them with salt, letting the water leech out, and then rinsing away the salt and squeezing the remaining liquid out using a clean towel. You can also use your favorite combination of cheeses.

This recipe can also be frozen for later use. To do so, make the casserole right up to where you would refrigerate it overnight. Instead, cover it with plastic wrap or parchment paper, and then foil, and then freeze it. When you're ready to finish the casserole, allow it to thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Then preheat your oven and bake as described in the recipe.

Serves: 6 to 8

Hands on time: 30 minutes

Total time: 9 hours and 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup minced onion

1/4 cup minced red bell pepper

10 slices soft Italian-style bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 4 cups)

1 cup (4 ounces) finely minced ham, if desired

2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

3 cups milk, preferably whole

6 large eggs

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Pinch of cayenne or nutmeg, if desired

1 cup crushed Ritz or buttery round crackers (about 16 crackers)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Instructions

Lightly grease a 9- by 13-inch baking dish with nonstick oil spray.

Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and bell pepper, and reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables soften, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Scatter half of the bread cubes in the baking dish. Top with the ham, if desired, followed by the cheeses and the onion and pepper mixture. Cover with the remaining bread cubes.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, mustard and cayenne, if desired. Pour the egg mixture over the bread cubes and press down to submerge them in the liquid. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to bake, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the baking dish from the fridge and discard the plastic wrap.

In a small bowl, toss the cracker crumbs with the melted butter. Using your fingers, scatter the crumb mixture over the top of the soaked bread cubes. Bake until golden brown, about 1 hour. Serve at once.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com