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In defense of the humble casserole

January 26, 2015

Italian sausage, tomatoes and lots of cheese top a polenta casserole from "The Make-Ahead Cook" by the editors at America's Test Kitchen

Step away from the sous-vide machine and microwave. It’s time to embrace the casserole, that oven-baked creation, and give it the respect it deserves.

Its legacy is rich, having sustained humans for centuries — no, not the green bean casserole your granny made in the ’60s, but some of the culinary world’s greatest hits: the pork, sausage and bean cassoulet from France, eggplant and lamb moussaka from Greece and that curly pasta, cheese and sauce lasagna from Italy.

They may not be called casseroles, but they are. That, perhaps, is where the confusion comes in, for the word casserole refers not only to a prepared dish but to the cooking vessel as well.

"There are two histories of casseroles. There’s a medieval history and the modern history. The modern history really begins in America," says Clifford A. Wright, author of "Bake Until Bubbly: The Ultimate Casserole Cookbook" and "Hot & Cheesy."

"Casserole the cooking vessel, which we usually think of as being rectangular and ceramic, really began to take off in the late 19th century," Wright says. That was thanks to various potteries that were producing a variety of ceramic casseroles that worked well in ovens, coinciding with a time when in-home ovens were becoming more common in America.

Their history reflects our history, helping us stretch foods during tough times (world wars, economic depressions) and incorporating scientific advances (ceramic bakeware, canned foods, frozen foods), Wright notes. They joined us at potlucks and church suppers. Every region in America has one. They show up in movies, TV shows and on YouTube in musical homages. Many have colorful names: Strata. Supper. Supremes. Delights. Hotdish. "There’s one called ham medley," Wright says. "It’s made of chicken on the bone, with onion, bechamel sauce, ham and Swiss cheese."

He remembers a casserole his mother made in the ’50s. "It was the simplest thing in the world. It was just frankfurters, beer and sauerkraut."

Casseroles proved to be time savers, versatile and very economical for home cooks. Yet, Wright points out, in all those early 20th-century cookbooks or magazines deliciousness or taste was never an issue as long as you get it on the table quickly. "Taste didn’t matter because it wasn’t about taste. Now they’re starting to have a good name because people are starting to pay a lot more attention to food."

BUILD A BETTER CASSEROLE

A well-made casserole often features a mix of textures, sometimes colors and a nice amount of browning, adding another dimension of flavor with that caramelizing. There are some guidelines for building a good one.

First you need to decide its purpose.

Perhaps it’s simply a side dish, say a green bean or cauliflower casserole.

"If you’re making a casserole as a one-pot dish, in other words, you want to feed your family and you only want to cook one thing — the casserole — then you’re going to want some protein, some starch and some vegetable," Wright says.

"You want to pay attention to two things. One, is it balanced and do all the foods in it cook, more or less, at the same time? Let’s say you have cubes of potatoes. What are the things that can go in the casserole that will cook in the same amount of time that it takes the potatoes to cook?" asks Wright. "You might want to use pork tenderloin, for example, rather than pork shoulder because it will take about the same amount of time as the potatoes.

"The other thing you’ve got to remember is it’s got to have some kind of moisture to it. If the food itself is not emitting the moisture, what is the moisture going to be? Is it going to be a broth or a little sauce? And then you’ve got to decide how healthy it should be," Wright adds. "Are you going to put a bechamel or Mornay sauce on top? Sure makes it delicious but maybe you don’t want that much cream and cheese. So you adjust it."

Betty Rosbottom’s "Sunday Casseroles: Complete Comfort in One Dish" (Chronicle Books, $24.95) covers a vast array of recipes, a cassoulet rapide to a turkey and corn tortilla matchup and a baked French toast with apples, apricots and cherries morning dish. As she notes in her book’s intro: "A good marriage is like a casserole; only those responsible for it really know what goes into it" — Anonymous.

Among her casserole tips:

— Shallower dishes tend to cook more quickly than deeper ones.

— Unless there’s a lot of braising liquid, butter or oil baking dishes to prevent food from sticking.

— Creamy cheeses that melt easily can be used instead of white or cheese sauces; Gorgonzola and mascarpone are good stand-ins.

— When cooking pasta for casseroles, make sure to season the water with salt, but do not add oil to the pasta water or rinse the drained cooked pasta — both will prevent sauces from adhering to the pasta.

— In addition, or in place of breadcrumb toppings, use toasted nuts (such as almonds, walnuts, pecans).

GREAT MOMENTS IN CASSEROLE HISTORY

1913: Pyrex breaks into cookware. Bessie Littleton needed to bake a cake, but her casserole dish was broken. She asked her Corning Glass Works scientist husband to bring home some glass to use instead. He brought her the sawed-off bottoms of some battery jars. And thus, Pyrex, the glass cookware company, was born.

1943: Spot the silver-lidded casserole dish in Norman Rockwell’s classic Thanksgiving family dinner "Freedom from Want" painting.

1940s: Eugenia Japp urges husband Leonard (who founded Jay’s Potato Chips) to put a recipe on the chip bags. He used her version of a tuna fish casserole topped with crushed potato chips.

1947: Harry S. Truman asks Americans to help post-war recovery in Europe through "Meatless Tuesdays" and other efforts in his "Food Conservation Speech." Wife Bess created a casserole recipe (yet another tuna, this one with noodles) as a tasty alternative.

1955: Green bean casserole is born. Campbell Soup Co.’s Dorcas Reilly wanted to create a quick and easy recipe using two common items in American kitchens: green beans and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup.

1994: Lasagna stars in the TV show "Friends" when Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) loses Barry’s engagement ring in Monica’s (Courteney Cox) lasagna in "The One with the Sonogram at the End."

2011: A CorningWare casserole dish with its blue cornflower design sits in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, donated that year by Mrs. Anne L. Bernat, who received a set for her 1967 wedding.

2012: "Cheesecake Casserole" — the movie. Four friends come together on the weekend before college graduation and make a cheesecake casserole. A lot has changed since they met freshmen year, and the girls worry if their friendship will keep them together for years to come.

SOURCES: Campbellkitchen.com; Internet Movie Database; Norman Rockwell Museum (NRM.org); National Park Service Museum Collections: Harry S. Truman (cr.nps.gov); Pyrexware.com; Smithsonian.

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BAKED RIGATONI WITH BROCCOLI

Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 40 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

Adapted from "Hot & Cheesy" by Clifford A. Wright (Wiley, $22.99)

8 ounces rigatoni

1 1/4 pounds broccoli, stems and florets separated

3 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more for greasing casserole

3 tablespoons flour

2 cups hot whole milk

3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 teaspoon salt, about

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

8 ounces mozzarella, diced

1/4 cup dried breadcrumbs

Olive oil

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Heat a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat. Add rigatoni; cook, 6 minutes. Cut the broccoli stems into 1-inch pieces. Add stems to the pot with the pasta; cook, 2 minutes. Add florets; cook about 5 minutes longer. (Never cook broccoli longer than 7 minutes.) Drain pasta and broccoli; transfer to a bowl.

2. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour; cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat; pour in milk slowly, whisking all the time. Return to heat; add Parmesan cheese. Cook until thicker, about 10 minutes. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, pepper and cayenne. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if needed.

3. Add the mozzarella and half the sauce to the rigatoni and broccoli; toss. Pour into a buttered 10-inch casserole dish; spread evenly. Spoon remaining sauce on top. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Drizzle with a little olive oil. Bake until golden and crispy on top, about 20 minutes.

Nutrition information per serving: 695 calories, 31 g fat, 18 g saturated fat, 79 mg cholesterol, 66 g carbohydrates, 36 g protein, 936 mg sodium, 5 g fiber

RUSTIC POLENTA CASSEROLE WITH SAUSAGE

Prep: 25 minutes

Cool: 30 minutes

Cook: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Makes: 6 to 8 servings

Adapted from "The Make-Ahead Cook" by the editors at America’s Test Kitchen ($26.95). Can be made up to 24 hours ahead.

5 cups water

1 1/3 cups whole milk

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste

1 cup coarse ground polenta

2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (1 cup)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 1/2 pounds sweet Italian sausage, casings removed

3 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes

8 ounces baby spinach

4 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded (1 cup)

1. Heat water and milk to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat; stir in 1 teaspoon salt. Very slowly pour polenta into boiling liquid while stirring constantly in a circular motion with a wooden spoon. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer; partially cover and cook, stirring often and making sure to scrape bottom and sides of pot clean. Cook until polenta no longer has a raw cornmeal taste, all liquid has been absorbed and mixture has a smooth uniform consistency but is very loose, about 15 minutes.

2. Remove polenta from heat. Stir in Parmesan cheese and butter; season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour polenta into a 13-by-9-inch baking dish; cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes.

3. While polenta cools, heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion and 1/2 teaspoon salt; cook until onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Add sausage. Cook, breaking up with a wooden spoon into large chunks, until meat is lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Stir in garlic, pepper flakes and tomatoes; cook until fragrant, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in spinach, 1 handful at a time, until wilted. Season with salt and pepper. Cool to room temperature. Spread cooled sausage mixture over cooled polenta. If not baking right away, wrap dish tightly with plastic wrap; refrigerate up to 24 hours.

4. To finish, unwrap dish and cover tightly with greased aluminum foil. Bake in a 400-degree oven until hot throughout and bubbling at edges, about 30 minutes. Remove foil; sprinkle casserole with mozzarella. Bake uncovered until cheese melts, 10-15 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.

Nutrition information per serving (for 8 servings): 445 calories, 24 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 54 mg cholesterol, 36 g carbohydrates, 21 g protein, 1,438 mg sodium, 5 g fiber

 

 


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