With the rise in costs of just about everything, I think that its time for us to re-examine what we can do in our households, food-wise, to stretch, bend and torture that poor buck until it screams. One of my favorite ways to do this is to introduce the elusive casserole into my meal plan.
Now I know, some of you out there aren’t big fans of casseroles. Your grandma used to make them dry and salty; your mom would put the oldest, nastiest food in them and say it was “mystery meat pie” or something to that effect. Well, get over it! There is a new day, and the best part is that you are now the cook and can decide what goes into those suckers. Today we will examine the anatomy of a good casserole, the process of combining ingredients and the best way to store those yummy casseroles. Ready?
The anatomy of a casserole is a very short and simple list: The protein, the sauce, the veggies, the starch and the topping. If you have every part of this anatomy in your casserole, then you’ll be in good shape and have a well-rounded meal in one dish.
Proteins can include the usual suspects: beef, chicken, pork, etc. They can also include the less likely characters of beans (quite yummy in a casserole), mushrooms, tofu or even Seiten (wheat meat), if you’re into that stuff. If you allot about a cup or two of these from an original meal, that would be the easiest way to get that casserole started. For example, if I am making chicken breasts for dinner, I will make an extra one and announce to the world that it’s for Sunday’s or Saturday’s casserole. Then I put it in a Tupperware container and put a lock on it and an alarm. There are vultures without ears (and sometimes brains) living in my house and they fly above the fridge. I’m looking into getting rid of them, but alas, no shot gun in the house.
The sauce is my all time favorite part of the casserole. Those who are lazy (like me) tend to use canned cream soups or canned tomato sauce as the sauce in their casseroles, and there is nothing wrong with that. BUT, if you are in the mood, light a candle, pour a glass of wine and try to create your own. A simple béchamel sauce will bring much surprise to those hungry vultures when they bite into those creamy casseroles. What’s a béchamel sauce, you ask? Well, have you ever made Mac and cheese from scratch? Never? Really? Ugh! Ok…..this is what you do: Take a tablespoon of fat (butter is nice, but canola or olive oil is better for you….blech) and warm it up in a medium saucepan. Add a tablespoon of flour to the fat and mix completely. This paste is called a roux and is very versatile. Now, start adding your liquid (for creamy sauce, use milk and for more of a gravy, use broth or water) to the roux and whisk, yes, whisk, little by little. You will see the paste start turning into a cream sauce right before your eyes! Easy! Add as much liquid as you need (making a big casserole? You’ll need a lot of sauce) and then you can season to taste. Want to make a cheese sauce? Add in some shredded cheese and viola! Cheese sauce.
Tomato sauce is just as easy. Put some diced tomatoes on a medium heat and add seasonings (Italian for Italian casserole, blah blah). Add a bit of sugar or honey, let bubble for about 5 minutes, taste and adjust seasoning. For a casserole, a tomato sauce doesn’t need to be thick. The starch and veggies in the dish are going to tighten it up, so no worries.
Now onto the veggies. This is the easiest ingredient, I think. Just use ones that your family likes and that pertain to the casserole. Making an Asian casserole? Broccoli and green onions would work out perfectly. Making more of a Sheppard’s pie? Use a frozen vegetable medley or buttery corn. See? Easy! Just one bit of advice: if you are going to use fresh, uncooked, veggies make sure they are ones that will be cooked within a half an hour in the oven and cut them in similar, small shapes.
The starch will also depend on the type of casserole you choose. For an Asian casserole, of course nice brown rice would be the ticket, but for an Italian casserole, rotini, ziti or broken up spaghetti would suffice. Make sure that these starches are cooked before you put them in the dish. Yes, there is a possibility that they will cook in the oven, but why take that chance? Use that leftover Chinese food rice and call it a day. Amen.
Now the topping. Oh lawdy, the topping. This can make or break your casserole. BUT this can also cause all the oohs and aahs when you bring it to the table. Got kids in the house? Top your casserole with mashed potatoes (from those pouches…easy!), cheddar goldfish, or potato chips. What to kick it “old school”? Use bread crumbs tossed in oil. Making a noodle casserole? Top with shredded cheese and call it an evening.
All casseroles do well in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes and once made, can be frozen quite well. Actually, once they are put together, before putting into the oven, you can wrap well and freeze for a quick meal. I promise you, they won’t taste like mom’s mystery meat pie.