Pennsylvania winter

My pal Ali was here for Christmas and we had a fine country walk on monday, around the 574 acre Stroud Preserve, just south of West Chester. There are many nature preserves, parks and farms in Chester County, but this is one of the largest tracts. Find the county’s guide to open space here.

This is permanently protected land,  managed by the Natural Lands Trust, where Andy Pitz works, a colleague from my GHGR Task Force group.  A few miles north of Kennett Square‘s mushroom capital of the country, historic houses and barns dot the landscape, making a very cold day picturesque. Easing the chill, we had hot chocolate and cappuccino afterwards at Talula’s Table, the fine local gourmet shop/farm restaurant. A stop at the historic Baldwin’s Book Barn just outside West Chester, warming our hands in front of their raging pot bellied stove and exploring all floors of their 300,000 book collection, ended the day’s sojourn.


photos of Baldwin’s Book Barn courtesy Jim:

I loved the historic barn, built by local Quakers in 1822. In 1934, Tom Baldwin’s parents established the bookstore nearby, moving to the present location in 1946. One of the adjoining structures is still the family residence. Rare books, maps and prints can be found in among the bargains. Five floors of winding stairways and nooks and crannies make exploring the barn as fun and interesting for adults as it is for children. When we were there, an original Disney book illustrating early character animation was for sale.


Ali sent this NY Times recipe ahead, for a swiss chard Strata that we found delectable, fast and easy to make. If you don’t have dried mushrooms, a package of baby Portabellas works just fine. So does Swiss cheese substituted for the Gruyère.

Strata With Mushrooms and Chard

Published: December 22, 2009

I make — savory bread puddings — when I find myself with a stale baguette on hand, even if it’s so hard that the only way to slice it is to saw it. A strata is as comforting as macaroni and cheese, and it makes a great one-dish meal.

1/2 pound stale bread, sliced about 3/4 to 1 inch thick

3/4 ounce dried mushrooms

8 ounces Swiss chard, stemmed and cleaned

2 garlic cloves, 1 cut in half, green shoots removed, the other minced

1 cup low-fat milk

2 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated (1/2 cup, tightly packed)

1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated (1/4 cup, tightly packed)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

Salt and freshly ground pepper

4 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups low-fat milk

Note: If your bread is very hard, carefully saw it into slices with a sturdy serrated knife. Dipping it into the milk for half a minute may help, but this also may cause the bread to crumble as you slice it.

1. If the bread is soft, toast it lightly and rub each slice front and back with the cut clove of garlic. Cut in 1-inch dice. If the bread is stale, just rub the slices with garlic and cut them into 1-inch dice. Place in a very large bowl, and toss with 2/3 cup of the milk. Set aside.

2. Place the dried mushrooms in a bowl or a Pyrex measuring cup, and cover with 1 1/2 cups boiling water. Allow to sit for 30 minutes. Set a strainer over a bowl, line with cheesecloth, a coffee filter or paper towels, and drain the mushrooms. Squeeze the mushrooms over the strainer to extract all of the broth. Rinse, away from the strainer, in several changes of water to wash off sand. Squeeze out excess water. Chop coarsely. Measure out 1 cup of the mushroom broth, and combine with the remaining milk.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil or butter a 2-quart baking dish or gratin. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, and add the chard. Stir until the leaves begin to wilt in the liquid left on them after washing. Cover the pan, and let the chard steam until it has completely collapsed, about two minutes. Uncover and stir. When all of the chard has wilted, remove from the pan and rinse briefly with cold water. Press or squeeze out excess liquid. Chop coarsely and set aside.

4. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil to the pan, turn the heat down to medium and add the minced garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds, and stir in the reconstituted mushrooms, the rosemary and the chard. Stir together for a couple of minutes, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat, and transfer to the bowl with the bread cubes. Add the cheeses, and toss together. Arrange in the baking dish.

5. Beat together the eggs in a medium bowl. Add salt to taste (I use 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon), the remaining milk and the mushroom broth. Add a few twists of the peppermill and pour over the bread. Press the bread down into the custard mixture. Sprinkle a little Parmesan over the top, and drizzle on the remaining olive oil. Place in the oven, and bake 40 to 50 minutes, until puffed and browned. Remove from the oven, and serve hot or warm.

Yield: Serves four to six.

Advance preparation: This can be assembled through step 4 hours or even a couple of days before you beat together the eggs and milk and complete the casserole.

Martha Rose Shulman can be reached at

This entry was posted in Daily meanderings and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Pennsylvania winter

  1. Ali Hossaini says:

    What a marvelous visit it was! Victoria is a splendid host, and it’s always illuminating to take a tour of eastern Pennsylvania with her. She knows the story of every historic building, farm and charming nook in that part of the world.

  2. John says:

    Lovely photos of the bookshop, what a magical-looking place! Seems like you could get lost in there for a day or two with all the imagery.

  3. Victoria says:

    John, I wish I could take credit for them, but I found them all on Flickr….. It is a great independent shop. Not to mention how picturesque the surroundings are!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *