DIY Local One-Pot Wonder: The Casserole (Thanks, Moms Everywhere!)
Everyone has their own “comfort food,” from sushi to mac ’n cheese. For me, the term conjures up visions of that venerable one-pot wonder—the casserole. These were a staple on our table while I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s. In automotive terms, they were like the 1970 Cadillac Fleetwood—heavy, hearty and built for comfort, not speed.
Casseroles have been around forever, but the style I’m most fond of was born out of the post-war proliferation of processed and pre-packaged foods (most of these recipes include as a primary ingredient a can or two of cream-of-something soup for additional heft and rely on canned veggies). In my opinion, they serve as a sort of bridge between scratch cooking and the TV dinner.
They give the home cook the satisfaction of following a recipe and putting together something by hand while also playing into our collective fascination with saving time. As Louise Rosseau Brunner notes in her 1953 opus, “Casserole Magic: 300 Recipes For The Best In One-Dish Meals,” casseroles can be prepped well ahead of time, don’t require constant attention once they’re in the oven and can be served right out of the dish they were cooked in.
“This leaves the housewife free for other last-minute chores—table setting, putting the children to bed, greeting guests calmly or having a quiet cocktail with her husband—while the casserole cooks,” she so archaically states. Brunner also notes that the casserole is tailor-made for getting rid of leftovers you may have languishing in the fridge and can be easily reheated (presumably by anyone, not just said housewife).
Here are a couple of my favorite casserole recipes, courtesy of my mother, Carolyn Sorrell. If you don’t have all of the ingredients, they can easily be found at your local corner store. Extra points if you prepare them in vintage Corningware.
The Best Tuna Noodle Casserole
2 6-ounce cans or pouches tuna, packed in water, drained
1 10.5-ounce can cream of chicken soup
1/3 cup milk
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1 14.5-ounce can peas, drained
1 4-ounce jar pimentos, drained
8 ounces wide egg noodles, cooked
1 cup crushed Saltine crackers
2 Tbsp. margarine, melted
A pinch of garlic powder
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the soup, sour cream, milk, salt, pepper, garlic powder and cheese. Fold in the tuna, peas, pimentos and noodles. Pour it into a greased 2-quart casserole dish. In a small bowl, combine the margarine (or butter, if you want to update things) and crackers. Spread the mixture over the top of the casserole. Bake for 30 minutes or until bubbling. Serves four.
1 pound ground beef, browned
8 ounces wide egg noodles, cooked
1 14.5-ounce can diced stewed tomatoes
1 6-ounce can tomato sauce
1 10.5-ounce can cream of celery or cream of chicken soup
1 14.5-ounce can whole kernel corn, drained
2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients except the cheese. Pour into a greased 2-quart casserole dish. Bake 30 minutes or until the cheese is melted and bubbling. Serves four.
The beauty of casserole recipes is that they are very forgiving of modifications. If these recipes are a little too heavy for your taste, here are some tips for making them a bit lighter:
— Mitigate some of the fat and calories by using low-fat cheese and low- or no-fat soups. You can also make your own white sauce and add chopped mushrooms, celery, chicken or other ingredients.
—Puree cauliflower and add Greek cream cheese or a soft cheese such as farmer cheese, quark, curd cheese or ricotta, for a healthier alternative to the cream soups. Of course, you can always use fresh vegetables instead of the canned variety.
— Substitute lean ground bison or ground turkey for the ground beef, or shred a couple of chicken breasts instead.
Images courtesy of Lisa Cichon.