Casseroles Make the Party Scene

By Chef Judi Gallagher –

Did you know that casseroles are on the dinner party circuit this season? When I was a child my mother almost never made casseroles. We had red meat at least four times a week. There was roast chicken one night, we went out for Chinese another night and, of course, wasn’t Prince spaghetti day every Wednesday?

But, my friends had casseroles for dinner and I always felt I was missing some essential part of American culinary life. Some families I knew had cheese and Stove Top stuffing mix; others turned out a dish with canned tuna and cream of mushroom soup.

I suppose if you count the Thanksgiving green bean casserole we did have a casserole on our buffet table every November. When my son was young he used to beg me to buy Hamburger Helper (God forbid). He claimed his other friends got to eat casseroles and why did we have to eat steak and veal and grilled swordfish all the time. Is there a casserole yearning in all children? And does it continue into adulthood?

It’s not that I personally have anything against a casserole. But, I don’t favor leftovers, and a casserole always seemed to me a way of disguising bits and pieces of main dishes left hiding in the fridge.

My Aunt Helen used to make a casserole she called Spanish Rice, although I doubt anyone from Spain would recognize it as an authentic regional dish. It was cooked white rice, browned ground sirloin, minced onions and green peppers and Campbell’s tomato soup. Today I often make that recipe for the filling of stuffed peppers, adding a touch of oregano and crushed red pepper. So I guess I do make and eat a casserole without ever calling it one.

Clearly, I need to make that recipe more often because in the past two years, casseroles have made a monumental come back. It’s part of the comfort food movement and an ingredient-stretching casserole is certainly a sensible and thrifty “all in one meal” that’s just right for difficult economic times. Last year, tuna noodle casserole made appearances in penthouses in Manhattan and Chicago, green peas, crumbled potato chips and all.

In 2011, look for more sophisticated casseroles that use cream cheese, wild mushrooms and high quality meats such as pancetta and ground veal. While I am not totally sold on making casseroles a mainstay for any dinner party, I do have three delicious casseroles recipes to share. Aunt Helen would be so pleased.

Aunt Helen’s Spanish Rice

(This is my Aunt Helen’s recipe. She made it extra well done on top and I still remember fighting with my siblings for the crustiest edges. It’s inexpensive, flavorful and makes the perfect filling for stuffed peppers for another night. Talk about a budget meal, this is it!)

1-pound ground beef
Garlic salt to taste
1 pinch celery salt
3 cups cooked white rice, chilled (I make it the night before)
2 cans Campbell’s tomato soup
1 green pepper diced
1 onion diced
2 stalks celery diced
Ground black pepper and kosher salt to taste
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Heat large sauté pan and brown the ground beef. Drain extra grease and add onions, peppers, celery and seasoning and simmer about 4 minutes until veggies are tender. Remove from heat. Stir in large bowl with cooked white rice and tomato soup. Mix well and adjust seasoning. Pour into greased casserole dish and bake at 375 degrees until brown and bubbly. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese.

Couscous Bake
(serves eight)
This lovely vegetarian casserole is from the new book 300 Best Casserole Recipes by Tiffany Collins. Robert Rose publisher, $24.95). Serve this dish hot, cold or at room temperature. It also works as filling for a lettuce wrap and it freezes well too.

1 ½ cups vegetable broth
1 cup couscous
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 can (28-ounces) diced tomatoes drained and 1/3 cup juice reserved
2 cups loosely packed fresh spinach leaves, sliced
1/3 cup pine nuts
1 teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 cup shredded Muenster cheese

Preheat oven to 375-degrees. Use a 10-cup casserole dish. In a medium saucepan, bring broth to a boil over high heat. Add couscous and salt; cover, remove from heat and let stand for 5 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Fluff with a fork. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Saute garlic and onion for 5 to 7 minutes or until tender. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes. Stir in couscous, reserved tomato juice, spinach, pine buts, basil and pepper. Spread half the couscous mixture in casserole dish. Sprinkle with cheese. Spread the remaining couscous over cheese. Cover and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until bubbling.

Classic Turkey Divan
(adapted from the book 300 best Casserole Recipes)
1 ½ pounds broccoli chopped
¼ cup butter
¼ cup all purpose flour
1 ½ cups chicken broth
Pinch ground nutmeg
½ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon sherry
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup freshly grated aged cheddar cheese
6 slices cooked turkey breast (chicken works fine as well)

In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook broccoli for 4 minutes until tender crisp. Drain. In a medium saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Sprinkle with flour and cook, stirring constantly, for about 1-2 minutes. Gradually stir in hot chicken broth and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in nutmeg and gently stir in cream, sherry and half of the cheeses. Place broccoli in baking dish. Top with sliced turkey. Pour sauce over turkey and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Place pan under broiled until bubbly brown. Serve right away on buttered noodles or wild rice.

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