Creative Casseroles

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As we find ourselves acclimating to a new normal, stocking up and making food stretch is on everyone’s minds. During the current COVID-19 situation, some of us might be missing our usual “foodie fix” that we often get when we eat out. Eating in can also be stressful if one takes into account the slim pickings recently found at our local markets. I can’t help you with the toilet paper shortage, but I can offer some tips and techniques for making staples go further, stocking your freezer, and for finding inspiration in unlikely places. Before we dive in though, please continue to support local restaurants by utilizing curbside pick up and delivery options. It’s not quite the same as eating out, but if we want our restaurants to be there for us as our economy strives to recover from these strange times, they will need our continued patronage.

And now, on to the good stuff. Casseroles may seem like wintertime fare, and yes, they conjure up thoughts of cozy, cold-weather evenings, but who doesn’t love a one-dish meal that can go from freezer to oven to table? And I don’t know about you, but I’ve been comfort cooking like crazy in the past month! Let’s embrace the casserole, its many facets, and how we can best put it to work for us when some food items might be in short supply.

The term “casserole” originated in France in the early 1600’s and comes from the French word casse, which describes a deep pot for slow cooking. The word casserole refers to both the food and the container in which it is cooked and oftentimes served. The type of casserole will inform the type of baking dish used. Lasagna, for example, requires a deeper dish to accommodate the many layers of pasta and sauce characteristic of that Italian creation we all love. A gratin, on the other hand, requires a shallower vessel in order to achieve a larger surface area for the crispy, crunchy topping, which is the main reason for a gratin in the first place (think au gratin potatoes and how we all fight over the crispy top!).

I know what you’re all thinking. Is she going to talk about condensed soup…? Let’s address that elephant in the room right now. Yes, I am a classically trained culinarian. But I’m also a busy mom, was raised in the south, and I fully embrace the awesomeness and irreplaceable aspect of cream-of-whatever soup. I am going to offer up a few recipes, and one of them may or may not contain a condensed soup. Condensed soup can be a real time-saver and also a great source of creaminess, umami, and the savory “glue” that holds a beloved dish together. While it does sometimes resemble actual glue, I’m not going to hate on condensed soup. (Let’s all pause for a moment and ponder the greatness that is King Ranch Chicken. I rest my case.) True, not all casseroles need the canned stuff, but I’m not above using it when it’s called for. As I mentioned, it saves time and let’s face it … it tastes great. I feel better now, don’t you? Moving on.

Casseroles all seem to have a few things in common. I think most of us instinctively understand this, especially if we were raised on things like broccoli rice casserole, stacked enchilada casserole, and chicken spaghetti. There is usually some kind of starch (pasta, potatoes, tortillas, rice), meat or beans of some kind, a flavorful sauce, and of course, cheese or a crunchy topping. With this basic structure in mind, casseroles are a great way to stretch proteins, something I’ve found less of at my grocery store recently. For example, two large chicken breasts (or half of a store-bought rotisserie chicken) are more than enough to bake enough chicken spaghetti or stacked green enchiladas for four people. One pound of ground beef or sausage, while maybe not enough served on its own, will easily serve six if mixed into a baked ziti. Stretching meats leaves room for staples like pasta or tortillas, making casseroles both filling and cost-effective. Some casseroles are even great meatless, such as a corn and green chile bake, spinach and feta strata (think of a strata as a savory bread pudding), and the greatest of all casseroles, mac ‘n cheese.

Convenience is another reason to love our casseroles, no matter the season. A quiche, although not technically a casserole, can be frozen (unbaked) and then popped directly into the oven from the freezer. The same holds true for lasagna and most of the others. Doubling a recipe allows us to bake some today and freeze the rest for later use, offering quick meals anytime. One of my favorite casserole hacks is to line my baking dish with foil before assembling my recipe. Once the casserole is frozen, I lift it out and wrap it tightly in layers of foil and plastic wrap and stack it in my freezer. This frees up my baking dish for other uses. When I’m ready to bake the frozen casserole, I simply pop it back into its dish and I’m good to go. Don’t forget to label any frozen items you pack away or you’ll be peeling back foil in order to tell your baked ziti from your chicken and rice!

A word on technique . . . casseroles made ahead and frozen should be assembled with a little extra sauce, especially if pasta or tortillas are in play. Both will absorb extra liquid and can therefore result in a dry casserole once baked. Also, think about different ways to use these items. Lasagna is great as a casserole, but the long, flat pasta is also well suited to rolling around meat or cheese fillings. These lasagna “rolls” can be lined up on a sheet tray, frozen individually, and sealed in plastic freezer bags, making it easy to bake a few at a time. Simply line up as many as you need in your baking dish, cover with your favorite jarred marinara or a quick homemade béchamel sauce, and bake. Corn tortillas are most often used in casserole preparations for making traditional rolled enchiladas. Stacking the tortillas and layering them with meat and sauce is a real time-saver, however, and instantly makes preparing enchiladas an easier task.

Let’s talk recipes. I am including the standard recipe for fresh pasta for those of you who might have a pasta machine or pasta rolling mixer attachment at home. Making fresh pasta for lasagna isn’t hard, should you find yourself with some extra time on your hands, and it’s fun to do with kids! In fact, it’s a bit easier than making noodles, since there’s less cutting involved. Feel free, however, to substitute dried lasagna. I encourage you to try the rolled lasagna described above, and dried lasagna pasta works well for these. The recipe for chicken and spinach lasagna is lovely with a béchamel sauce, but jarred marinara would also be great, especially if you substitute Italian sausage or beef for the chicken. And that’s another great thing about casseroles … you can easily make them your own using whatever you have on hand.

Food is such an important part of our lives, and the social aspect of eating out is something we are all likely missing right now. While we may need to cook and eat at home more often in the near future, food is still social, comforting, and necessary to our health and happiness. We’re all in the COVID-19 new world together, so let’s be safe out there and look after each other. If you are prepping meals and know someone in need, such as an elderly friend, relative, or neighbor (and it’s safe to do so) a casserole delivery can be very much appreciated. If it’s best to stay home and eat, we absolutely can. But we can also keep it interesting, prep meals for our freezers, and share what we have with others. Happy cooking everyone, and viva la casserole!

Basic Fresh Pasta Dough
½ pound all purpose flour
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until a crumbly mixture is achieved. Transfer mixture to a lightly floured countertop and press together using your hands. Dough should hold together. Divide in half, knead a few times, and form into discs. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and let rest, refrigerated, for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Allow dough to come to room temperature on the counter for 30 minutes before rolling.

Roll each disc through a pasta machine, starting with the widest setting. Once dough has come through, remove and fold into thirds. Continue rolling and folding the dough into thirds, using the widest setting until the pasta dough becomes soft and lightens in color, about four or five passes. At this stage, begin decreasing the pasta roller settings until the desired thickness is reached, allowing the dough to be rolled through twice on each setting. If the sheets become too long, cut them in half. Keep the dough covered with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out.

For lasagna, cut pasta sheets into long rectangles. Par-cook in boiling, salted water for about 1 minute. The pasta will continue cooking in its sauce. For noodles, use a pizza wheel or the cutter attachment on your pasta machine to cut into desired sizes. Boil in salted water for 2-3 minutes or until al dente, finish in desired sauce.

Pro tip: fresh pasta is generally preferred for delicate, creamy sauces such as Alfredo, béchamel or carbonara. Dried pastas are typically paired with more robust, tomato-based sauces such as marinara. An exception would be a classic Bolognese, which is technically a tomato-based meat sauce. The addition of cream, however, makes it better suited to pairing with fresh pasta.

 

Easy Stacked Chicken Enchiladas Verde
½ rotisserie chicken, shredded (2-3 cups cooked chicken)
1 16 oz jar roasted tomatillo salsa
1 11 oz jar green chile salsa or canned green enchilada sauce
1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup
½ cup sour cream
salt and pepper to taste
12-15 corn tortillas, torn
3 cups Monterey jack cheese, shredded

To make the verde sauce, combine the tomatillo salsa, green enchilada sauce, soup and sour cream in a mixing bowl and whisk to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Use your favorite tomatillo salsa and enchilada or green chile sauce here. Many are available spicy or mild, it’s your choice.

Spoon a small amount of the prepared sauce onto the bottom of a casserole dish and then layer tortillas, shredded chicken, sauce and cheese, salt and pepper, ending with a layer of sauce and shredded cheese on top. Bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes, or until golden brown and bubbly. Allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving. Serves 6.

Pro tip: my favorite salsas to use for this dish are HEB’s roasted tomatillo salsa and “That Green Sauce,” both in jars on the salsa aisle. Combined with the condensed soup and a little sour cream, they make a creamy, tasty verde sauce for this casserole, as well as a great sauce for chilaquiles, or even just for dipping tortilla chips.

*If you prefer a smooth sauce, feel free to blend all in your blender and then proceed with layering the casserole

 

Classic Macaroni and Cheese
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 ¾ cups whole milk
salt and pepper
dash nutmeg
1 pound macaroni (or short pasta of your choice)
1 cup shredded Monterey jack
1 cup shredded sharp white cheddar
½ cup shredded gruyere
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons finely grated parmigiano reggiano
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped (optional)

Boil pasta in well-salted water according to package directions. Rinse in hot water and allow to drain.

Melt butter in a heavy bottomed sauce pan. Add flour and whisk until bubbly, about one minute. Whisk in whole milk and bring to a boil (whisking constantly) until thickened and smooth, about five minutes. Season with salt, pepper and a dash of nutmeg. Remove from heat and stir in shredded Monterey jack, white cheddar and gruyere, until cheese melts and sauce is smooth. Stir pasta and cheese sauce together, and pour into a wide, shallow baking dish.

Stir panko, melted butter, parmigiano reggiano and parsley together until all breadcrumbs are coated. Sprinkle on top of the pasta and bake at 400 degrees until the top is browned and crispy, about ten minutes. If your oven has a convection setting, it works well here for browning the top of the mac ‘n cheese. You can broil the casserole, but keep a close watch so it doesn’t burn.

Pro tip: I normally do not suggest rinsing pasta, but it works well here to keep the macaroni from sticking together while you make the sauce.

*The above is a basic recipe that is always delicious, but macaroni and cheese is incredibly versatile. Use whatever sharp cheeses you prefer for best flavor. Mac ‘n cheese is also great with meat and/or vegetables added. Cheeseburger mac ‘n cheese, broccoli mac ‘n cheese, spicy chorizo, mushrooms, and the king of all mac ‘n cheese … lobster mac ‘n cheese. The sky’s the limit!

 

Chicken and Spinach Lasagna
1 recipe fresh pasta (1/2 pound), rolled into sheets for lasagna OR 8-10 dried lasagna noodles, cooked and drained

For the béchamel sauce:
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
2 ¾ cups whole milk
salt and pepper
dash grated nutmeg

For the filling:
2 cups chicken breast, poached and cubed
1 10 oz package frozen chopped spinach (thawed and squeezed dry)
16 oz ricotta cheese
½ cup grated parmigiano reggiano
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and pepper

In a heavy bottomed pot, melt butter and stir in flour. Cook until bubbly, about one minute. Whisk in milk until a smooth sauce is achieved. Whisk constantly over medium heat until sauce comes to a boil and thickens, about 5 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

Sauté the shallots in butter over medium-low heat until softened and translucent, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and continue to cook for one minute, making sure garlic does not burn or brown. Pulse chicken in food processor until finely chopped. Combine chicken, spinach, ricotta, shallots, ¼ cup of the parmigiano reggiano, and season with salt and pepper.

Place a small amount of béchamel sauce on the bottom of a baking dish. Layer pasta sheets, chicken mixture and béchamel sauce thinly three or four times, ending with béchamel on top. Sprinkle with remaining ½ cup parmigiano reggiano. Bake at 350 degrees until bubbly and browned, about 30 minutes. Let stand for ten minutes before serving. Serves 6.

*This recipe works well for rolled lasagna. Spread filling evenly onto cooked lasagna noodles, roll up, and place seam side down in a baking dish. Cover with béchamel sauce and sprinkle with cheese, bake as directed.

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