To many, the all-American casserole evokes heartwarming comfort-food memories. But that is not my experience. My mother turned her nose up, literally, at the mention of the word; having made nothing but casseroles as a newlywed, she could not stand the thought of them once she "learned how to cook."
“‘Casserole,’” she liked to say, “is the French word for ‘glop.’”
Despite our mother’s interdiction, my siblings and I, children of divorce, were regularly exposed to casseroles during trips to visit our father in Alabama.
Our stepmother’s repertoire included perennially popular concoctions: asparagus-pea, broccoli-rice, green bean-mushroom. Those offerings did not necessarily disprove our mother’s assessment of casseroles, thanks mostly to the fact that their main ingredients, condensed soup and canned or frozen vegetables, shared exactly the same soft, unappetizing texture.
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But along with the abundance of sodium that some of those ingredients contained, other taste-bud triggers made the casseroles hard to resist: fat of some sort; gooey or processed cheeses; sour cream; crunchy toppings such as crushed cornflakes, buttered bread crumbs and frizzled onions; and sometimes the ultimate bet-hedger: bacon.
The truth was, even if the tinny chemical taste of cream-of-whatever soups or the sad, muddy nullity of canned asparagus or frozen broccoli made me want to pass up those dishes, those other inducements enticed me like sirens.
I would eagerly help myself to seconds of hash brown casserole (frozen hash browns, cream of chicken soup, cheddar cheese, sour cream, cornflakes) or Betty Jean’s Casserole, a family favorite made with browned ground beef, macaroni, celery, onions, a bottle of ketchup and half a loaf of Velveeta melted on top. I guess I didn’t stand a chance against the vast conglomerate conspiracy to coat the world in high-fructose corn syrup and top it with bubbly, Day-Glo-orange “cheez” food.
When I cooked professionally, my relationship with such ghastly amalgamations became more complicated. I accepted them as a guest but rejected them as a chef.
Of course, when convenient, I just decided to put foods I liked in a separate category. Let’s face it: Lasagna is a casserole. The pleasure we derive from it is directly proportional to the amount of cheese it contains.
And so, as a supposed entertaining expert who has been caught off guard more than once in recent weeks (no time to go to the grocery store; friends coming over in an hour; fridge basically empty), I set out to devise some one-dish wonders of my own, minus the cans of soup and other processed ingredients.
For the basic formula, I broke out the components of most one-dish meals (protein, vegetable, starch) and filled in the blanks. I started with a personal favorite, shepherd’s pie, and gave it a Mediterranean tweak, adding eggplant to the ground-lamb-and-tomato base and topping a layer of mashed Yukon Gold and sweet potatoes with feta cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. The dish freezes nicely, cooked or uncooked.
For Moroccan chicken pearl couscous casserole, I basically matched the ingredients of a vegetable tagine (sweet potatoes, zucchini, chickpeas, dried apricots, raisins, red onions) with spice-coated chicken breasts, tomatoes and chicken broth. I combined them in an enameled Dutch oven with uncooked pearl couscous. The liquids cooked the pasta along with everything else, saving a step.
For a meatless Monday dish – assembled on Sunday – I highlighted butternut squash, shiitake mushrooms and earthy kale with Asian accents: coconut milk, lemon grass, galangal, green chili peppers, ginger, tamari, sesame seeds and chili paste with garlic. When the casserole bakes, the kale leaves on top crisp up to add a nice crunch.
Stuffed cabbage rolls, mine made with ground turkey, basmati rice, crushed tomatoes and a hint of Thai red curry paste, are always crowd pleasers, especially in my house; minus the Thai element, they were a staple in my partner’s Polish household when he was growing up. Stacked on a mound of mashed potatoes and topped with dollops of crme fraiche, these two-pot cabbage rolls make a perfect winter dish.
I never once ate tuna noodle casserole as a kid, but apparently that was not the case with my partner. When he came home the day I tested my version of the American classic, his eyes lit up.
“Is that tuna noodle casserole?” Michael gushed with the kind of enthusiasm he never demonstrated for my sous-vide salmon experiments.
He wolfed down a square of it, made as a lasagna with peas, mushrooms, scallions, dill and a zesty bechamel sauce, and then asked for seconds.
Good thing there are two more batches of it in the freezer, one made with salmon.
Along the way in my casserole adventure, I learned these tips:
• If you plan to freeze a casserole straight away, line the dish with aluminum foil before filling it. Once the contents have frozen, you can remove the block from the pan, wrap it well and store it without a dish.
• Defrost frozen casseroles in the refrigerator overnight, or pop them into the oven frozen but double the cooking time.
• To know whether a casserole is hot enough in the middle, insert a knife in the center, then withdraw it and see if it is hot to the touch; or cook the casserole to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
Tuna or Salmon Noodle Casserole Redux
Yield: 6 servings
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 ounces sliced mushrooms
2 cups frozen mixed peas and carrots, defrosted
1 bunch scallions, white and light-green parts, chopped (1/2 cup)
1 small bunch dill, chopped (1/4 cup, packed)
1 teaspoon salt, plus more for seasoning the vegetables
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning the vegetables
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup flour
4 medium cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon powdered mustard
12 ounces canned nonfat evaporated milk (may substitute regular milk)
21/2 cups whole or low-fat milk
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
10 sheets no-cook lasagna noodles
Four 5-ounce cans tuna in oil, drained and broken up into chunks with a fork; or 20 ounces thinly sliced salmon fillet
1/4 cup panko (Japanese-style) bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
Lightly grease a 2-quart square casserole dish with nonstick cooking oil spray.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Heat the oil in a medium saute pan over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the mushrooms and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they exude their juices and become lightly browned. Transfer to a medium bowl; stir in the peas and carrots, scallions and dill. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and the garlic; cook for a few minutes, stirring, to get rid of the raw-flour taste. Add the powdered mustard, then gradually stir in the evaporated milk and the whole or low-fat milk (or all milk, if you are using), whisking continually to keep lumps from forming. Add the Worcestershire and hot pepper sauces, the 1 teaspoon of salt and the 1/2 teaspoon of pepper. Cook the sauce for 6 to 7 minutes, stirring constantly, until it achieves the consistency of thick gruel. Stir in the cheese. Remove the sauce from the heat and let it cool for 10 minutes.
To assemble: Spread 1/2 cup of the cooled sauce and a sprinkling of vegetables on the bottom of the casserole. (This will prevent the noodles from sticking.) Place 2 lasagna sheets side by side on the bottom. Top the sheets with a quarter of the remaining vegetable mix, a quarter of the tuna or salmon and 3/4 cup of sauce. Starting with a noodle layer, repeat for 3 more layers, then top with a layer of lasagna sheets. (That makes a total of 5 layers of noodles, vegetables and sauce, and four layers of the tuna or salmon.) It is okay if some of the sauce and vegetables pool around the stacked noodles.
Spread the remaining sauce on the top layer of lasagna noodles and sprinkle the panko evenly over the sauce. Sprinkle with smoked paprika. Cover the casserole (loosely, don’t smash it) with a square of parchment paper, then seal with aluminum foil. Bake for 35 minutes, then uncover and bake for 20 minutes to brown the crumbs. (If you want them a little browner, turn the broiler on for a couple of minutes and monitor the casserole closely.)
Allow the casserole to rest for 10 minutes before serving.
Make-ahead note: The casserole can be assembled a day in advance and refrigerated, or frozen for up to 3 months. The recipe can be cut in half easily, to make 1 stack of noodles instead of 2.
Source: David Hagedorn
NUTRITION Per serving (with low-fat milk): 550 calories, 37 g protein, 47 g carbohydrates, 23 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 85 mg cholesterol, 1090 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 15 g sugar
Butternut Squash, Kale and Shiitake Casserole
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
1/2 cup low-fat coconut milk
2 tablespoons Thai green curry paste
1 teaspoon Chinese chili paste with garlic
1- to 11/2-inch piece peeled ginger root, finely grated or pureed (1 tablespoon)
1/4 cup cream of coconut
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce or tamari
21/2 pounds peeled, seeded butternut squash, cut into 2-inch pieces
8 ounces large shiitake mushroom caps, cut into quarters
1 bunch (9 ounces) kale, center veins removed, leaves torn into large pieces and rinsed and blotted dry
2 tablespoons white sesame seeds
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Lightly coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking oil spray.
Use a whisk to combine the coconut milk, Thai curry paste, Chinese chili paste, ginger, cream of coconut and soy sauce or tamari in a large mixing bowl. Add the squash pieces, mushrooms and kale; stir to coat evenly.
Transfer the vegetables to the baking dish, making sure there are plenty of kale leaves on top (so they will crisp during baking). Sprinkle the top evenly with sesame seeds. Cover with a layer of parchment paper, then seal tightly with aluminum foil. Bake for 35 minutes, then uncover and bake for 25 minutes, or until the squash is fork-tender and the kale on top is dark brown and crisp.
Make-ahead note: The casserole can be assembled 2 days in advance, covered and refrigerated. It can be frozen (unbaked) for up to 3 months.
Source: David Hagedorn
NUTRITION Per serving (based on 10): 110 calories, 3 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 230 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar
Shepherd's Pie with Eggplant
Yield: 6 servings
For the topping:
1 pound (2 large) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 pound (1 large) sweet potatoes, cut into 1-inch slices
8 whole cloves garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup low-sodium chicken broth or heavy cream, or a combination of both
Freshly ground black pepper
For the filling:
1/4 cup olive oil
3/4 pound unpeeled eggplant, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes (4 cups)
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
8 ounces sliced white or baby bella mushrooms
1 small yellow onion, chopped (3/4 cup)
1 pound lean ground lamb
3 medium cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup tomato sauce
3 ounces (1/3 cup) crumbled feta or freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Chopped chives, for garnish
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Lightly grease a 6-cup casserole or fluted deep-dish pie plate with nonstick cooking oil spray.
For the topping: Combine the potatoes, sweet potatoes and whole garlic cloves in a large pot; cover with salted water. Cook over medium-high heat until the potatoes are fork-tender. Drain and put the potatoes and garlic through a ricer into a large bowl. Add the oil and the broth and/or heavy cream, stirring until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from the heat; cover loosely.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
For the filling: Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large nonstick saute pan over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the eggplant and cook for about 5 to 7 minutes, stirring often, until it is lightly browned and soft. Season with salt and pepper to taste; transfer to a bowl.
Return the pan to medium-high heat; add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Once the oil starts to shimmer, add the mushrooms and onion; cook for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have exuded their juices and have browned. Add the lamb, breaking it up with a spoon but not crumbling it completely. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes, or until no traces of pink remain.
Drain all but a thin coating of fat from the pan (either first removing the lamb mixture and then returning it to the pan or by holding the mixture on one side of the pan as you drain). Add the chopped garlic, thyme, oregano, onion powder, garlic powder, cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper. Stir in the tomato sauce. Cook for 1 minute, then fold in the cooked eggplant.
Spoon the lamb-eggplant mixture into the bottom of the prepared dish. Spread the mashed potato mixture over the lamb, covering it completely.
For assembly: Top with crumbled feta or grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and bake for 45 minutes, until lightly browned. Garnish with chopped chives and a drizzle of the extra-virgin olive oil. Serve immediately.
Make ahead note: The casserole can be assembled and refrigerated a day in advance or frozen for up to 3 months.
Source: David Hagedorn
NUTRITION 5/8 Per serving (using only broth): 520 calories, 21 g protein, 42 g carbohydrates, 30 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 70 mg cholesterol, 940 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar