At various points in my life, dear friends have shown up at our house carrying a casserole, the universal dish of choice in Times of Trouble or Duress. The reasons casseroles always work at this time are many — they are generally hearty fare, the epitome of comfort food at a time when comfort is desperately sought but always just a titch too far on the horizon to be attainable. They’re also ridiculously easy to bring to the table: Just heat and serve, ideally right out of the disposable aluminum foil container they arrive in. No dish to wash or return.
My friend Susan dropped off a crab casserole with salad fixin’s a week after I was officially due with our third child and had just been told they would not induce for another week. I was hardly able to talk without crying I was so sure this child would never come out — ever. When my mother died, another meal miraculously appeared, proof that Susan is absolutely going to heaven because she had already earned her status as True Friend Forever in helping me care for my complicated mother.
My friend, Ariane, dropped off soup and homemade bread (!) when I had walking pneumonia and could hardly raise my head off the couch. And on it goes.
I, too, have come carrying casseroles for friends in need, and so on Saturday night, I knew a casserole would be exactly the right thing to serve a small gathering of our family after the death of my dear father-in-law. It had been a grueling day and we needed comfort — in food, in recollections, in each other. This casserole from Not Your Mother’s Casseroles didn’t disappoint, and I expect I’ll make it again in happier times as well.
Fall is officially here and we’re already feeling the cool weather here in the Northeast, which means I’m thinking casseroles and hearty soups. And I’m getting pumped about cooking in a way that’s different than the warm summer months. I love spending a cool autumn day baking and cooking up food for the week ahead. It just feels so cozy don’t you agree?
Right now, I’ve got the slow cooker whipping up a red bean and turkey sausage sauce to mix up with some rice. In the oven is a batch of granola (but not for you, Rachel, sorry!) and I’ve plans for a casserole for dinner tonight. The beans and rice are so we all have something easy to heat up after a long day at work.
And of course, since I’m talking casseroles, it’s time for the next installment in my ode to Faith Durand and her incredible cookbook, Not Your Mother’s Casseroles. I know, I know. I’ve made a bunch of her recipes and I ooh and ahh about each one. But the woman knows casseroles and I have never made a bad one — including this incredible curry casserole I made for dinner guests last night.
Janet here: No this isn’t a homonym lesson. I’m just noting an interesting concurrence: the week in which I make a fantastic leek dish was also the week the light fixture in the bathroom at Casa de Roomie (I live in two places if you’re not a regular reader) decided to become an unofficial shower as water streamed out of it one day just as I was about to head out the door to work. It was, obviously, an awesome moment.
Janet here: I love brunch. It just seems so decadent to eat a nice meal in the middle of the day, maybe with a mimosa or Bloody Mary, and relax around the table. As someone who wakes up each morning with an agenda (yes, even on the weekends), I need the excuse of being invited to or hosting a brunch to allow myself the time. Revealing I know.
Anyway we had a little family gathering over the weekend and I whipped up this little hash wonder, which was inspired by my favorite cookbook of 2011, Not Your Mother’s Casseroles by Faith Durand. The beauty here is using sweet potatoes instead of regular poatoes. It’s add a little sweetness and give the hash depth it normally doesn’t have.
We had friends visiting Saturday night who we hadn’t seen in a number of years. In other words, the premium was on catching up, not cooking. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t want to serve something tasty. (In fact, I think the bar gets even higher when you’re cooking for someone you haven’t seen in a while don’t you? Kind of a culinary version of dress to impress…)
Anyway, this casserole features orzo, which is a pasta I only discovered a few years ago but fell in love with. I’m not sure if it’s the shape or size but orzo just tastes better than a lot of other pastas. And I think it also allows other flavors to come out more fully. It doesn’t overwhelm.
The casserole also features pesto, which is one of my favorite sauces ever. Again, not overwhelming but totally flavorful. You can make it yourself, using Rachel’s recipe) or buy some (which, I’m not gonna lie, is what I did this time).
You’re going to have to trust me on how marvelous this casserole looks. By the time it came out of the oven, just a little alcohol had been consumed….and taking a photo was no longer on my to-do list.
serves 6, more if a side dish
1 pound orzo
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 orange bell pepper, cored and diced
1 onion, minced
2/3 cup pesto
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 9X13 baking pan.
Boil some water and cook the orzo until al dente. Drain. Put back in the large pot.
While the orzo is cooking, saute the onion, garlic and pepper in some olive oil until the vegetables start to get soft. Add to the orzo in the pot.
Stir in the pesto and mozzarella into the pot. Salt and pepper to taste. Spread into the baking pan, sprinkle the Parmesan on top and baked for 25 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the orzo is done. Serve it up.
I just want to say for the record that Thomas Edison is a god and that I will never take electricity for granted ever again. While I only had to live without power for 36 hours (thanks to the freak snowstorm that dumped 18 inches of ridiculously wet snow on Connecticut and broke just about every tree, landing most of them on power lines) before high-tailing it to my job in New York (with power! heat! running water! flushable toilets!), Peter stuck it out in Connecticut until Thursday (he is also a god-like) before joining me. When he left the state, there were still hundreds of thousands of people without power. Our power finally came back on Friday night after a week, but as I write this, 40 percent of the people in our town still don’t have power, and statewide about 125,000 people are still powerless.
It’s a long way of saying not a whole lot of cooking was going on at East Coast Casa Reynolds last weekend. I brought a cooler of whatever food I could grab on my way to work Monday AM since our freezer at that point was beginning to drip and it was clear Connecticut was not going to have power for at least a week. (I hate it when my most dire predictions are proved true.) I figured I’d do something with them sometime this week.
Which I did on Thursday when Peter was en route. Clearly some serious comfort food was in order, and what better place to start than with mashed potatoes. I mean, really, does anything matter after that?
I consider shepherd’s pie an excuse to serve mashed potatoes as the main course of a meal. While it’s typically made with meat (and I made a ground turkey version of this for years when our children were young and without adventurous tastebuds), I’ve gone back to my real vegetarian roots now that our household is sans children and haven’t cooked chicken in ages. This shepherd’s pie is a great vegetarian version that allows for a lot of flexibility and is a great way to use up veggies you’ve got hanging around or perhaps in quantities that aren’t enough for a meal or side on their own but mixed together help to create wonderfulness.
It’s also a chance to experiment with mashed potatoes: I’ve added everything from scallions to horseradish to gruyere to leeks and/or garlic to mashed potatoes, to name just a very few. This particular version included parmesan cheese, some half-and-half and yes some bacon my NY roomie had cooked up for something else. Regular readers know I’m weak for bacon and as I said earlier, this was a week for comfort food.
On to the recipe!
Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie
Serves a small army
vegetables cut up into bite sized pieces: I used broccoli, cauliflower, an onion, and 1 zucchini
16 ounces diced tomatoes: we also had some roasted tomatoes leftover from another recipe so I tossed that in as well
spices: I used oregano, a little basil, some chili powder, salt and pepper, but again this is a chance to season it as you wish
6 potatoes, washed and cut up into pieces
about 1/2 cup half-and-half OR about the same amount of broth (which is what I normally use as a lower fat version)
1 stick of butter
mashed potato fixin’s such as various grated cheeses, chives, onion bits, etc in the amount you like
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Put some water in a large pot and cook the potatoes until just done. When done, strain, add the butter, liquid of choice and mash. Then add seasonings and mash a bit more. Set aside.
While the potatoes are cooking, cut up the vegetables. Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan. Add the onions and garlic if using. Saute for a few minutes. Then add the veggies, starting with the ones that need a bit longer to cook first. I put in the broccoli and cauliflower first this time and then added the zucchini at the end because I don’t like it mushy. After the veggies are semi-cooked take off the heat.
Place the veggies in a large pan or casserole dish. Schmear the mashed potatoes on top. Place in the oven (maybe add a little grated cheese on top for good measure) and bake for 35-45 minutes, or until bubbling and a little brown on top.
Maxine, your mother is a wonderful human being who really loves you and is a terrific mother. But she has this one genetic flaw: Apparently she has mutant taste buds that tell her broccoli and cauliflower taste bad. As someone who eats broccoli multiple times weekly and thinks it is perhaps the best veggie ever grown, I find it a little hard to believe your mother came out of my body. (I assume this genetic flaw is from the Reynolds side of the clan, along with premature gray hair and height deficiencies.)
Anyway I’m here to tell you that when (note that was not an if) I make this casserole for you from Faith Durand’s new cookbook, Not Your Mother’s Casseroles, you are going to love it and, therefore, broccoli. It’s just the truth. Nana wouldn’t lie.
1 head broccoli, chopped, florets only about 4 cups
1 head cauliflower, florets only, chopped about 4 cups
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large onions, diced
3 teaspoons salt
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup minced fresh chives
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups shredded Gouda cheese
1/2 teaspoon pepper
for the bread crumb topping
1 cup bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease 9X13 baking dish.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the broccoli and cauliflower in the pot for 10 minutes or until tender. Drain and mash together in a large bowl until soft. Drain off any additional water. Set aside.
Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat and add the onions. Sprinkle with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and cook for about 10 minutes or until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for another 3-4 minutes or until the garlic is fragrant and golden. Add the chives, stir for about a minute and remove from the heat.
Beat the eggs in a small bowl. Then stir them into the mashed cauliflower and broccoli. Stir in the cheese, the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, pepper and finally the onion mixture. Place in baking dish.
For the topping, mix he breadcrumbs with the salt, pepper and olive oil. Spread evenly over the vegetable mixture in the baking dish. Bake uncovered for 40 minutes or until golden brown. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.
One of the benefits of the cooking marathon that is Thanksgiving is the ton of leftovers. Now I know you’re not cooking the whole meal — just that “pretty perfect” pumpkin pie that I’m going to try to make too; I’ll let you know how it goes — but someday you will, and then you’re going to want to know about this easy casserole for the day after. I adapted it from Rachael Ray’s magazine and it’s really easy.
Turkey Tortilla Casserole
2 limes quartered
1 pound turkey breast, cut into strips
1 large onion finely chopped
1 4 ounce can diced jalapeno chiles, liquid reserved
2 14.5 ounce cans fire-roasted diced tomatoes
1/2 pound crushed tortilla chips
about 14 ounces chicken broth
3/4 pound shredded cheese
1 cup sour cream, room temperature
Cut the turkey into strips or bite-sized pieces. Squeeze limes over them; add salt to taste.
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl combine the onion, jalapenos with liquid and tomatoes. Add the tortilla chips and turkey and toss well. Transfer it all to agreased 9 X 13 inch baking dish. Pour the broth in. Top with cheese. Bake about 40 minutes until the cheese is golden brown. Serve with sour cream.
Janet here: As a working and cooking mother, I am a big casserole fan. Not only is it easy to pull together a dinner quickly, but the possibilities are really endless for combinations. Seriously, all you need are the pasta of your choice, a sauce of some kind (whether it’s cheese based or not), and the goodies you want to put together plus spices. And you can make it all ahead and just plop it in the oven when you crawl through the door at the end of the work day.
Casseroles can also be a great way to hide certain ingredients that you might be trying to get past certain children who shall remain nameless. While parenting magazines always suggest ploys like cutting the food into shapes like clown faces, etc as a way to get a picky eater to eat, that never worked for me. I had to be a lot more devious…not that I was particularly successful. My middle son, G, basically lived on cans of Dinty Moore for about five years while the rest of my family ate real food. I took solace in the idea that those cans contained at least a version of something that once resembled a vegetable.
But I digress. Here’s my variation on tuna casserole. I hate mushrooms so you won’t find one anywhere near this, although you should feel free to add if you wish. What combinations do you like to put together for casseroles? Dish it up. We all want to know.
serves 6 or more
3/4 pound pasta–I use whatever I want but penne is particularly good
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 large stalk celery, finely diced
1/4 cup all purpose flour
3 cups low fat milk
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth or vegetable broth
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 6-ounce cans tuna in water, drained
1 10-ounce box frozen peas
1 10-ounce box frozen chopped broccoli
1/3 cup bread crumbs
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large pot of boiling, salted water, add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain
While the pasta is cooking, heat the oil and add the onions and celery. Saute until the onion is translucent, about five minutes or so. Add the flour and stir until the vegetables are well covered. Pour in the milk and broth stir over a low heat until the sauce thickens. Take it off the stove.
Mix the pasta, tuna, peas, broccoli and sauce in a large bowl. Pour into a casserole dish. Spread the bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese on top. Bake for about 35 minutes until the top is brown and the whole delicious concoction is bubbling slightly. Add some salad and French bread, and you are good to go.
Rachel here: I have never made a casserole. Seriously, not once. I’m not really sure why, although I suppose the fact that I don’t own a casserole dish probably has something to do with this fact. Casseroles seem so warm and hearty, though, and so classically domestic that I guess I’m going to have to acquire the appropriate cookware and remedy this oversight in my cooking repertoire. Plus, with a kid on the horizon, I’m imagining easy dinners are about to become even more appealing than they currently are (and trust me, with John and I both on the move most of the time, easy dinners are already pretty darn appealing). And so, though I know my mom already said this, what do you put in your casserole? Whoever presents the most alluring combination will provide the recipe for my very first casserole, complete with a shout-out on the blog and everything…once I buy the freaking casserole dish, that is.