Oh those casseroles! They were creamy this or layered that. Some were named for people — Helen’s Surprise, Betty’s Deluxe, Evelyn’s Cinch, Martha’s Glorious, Sue’s Magic this or Mary’s Super that. Other titles seemed “girl secrets,” titles like Lazy Daisy Beans, the Weary Willie Pie, Overnight Wonder, the Simply Delicious and ever so many more.
Casserole savvy was basically a knack for bringing groups of foods together. Most of the time, it began with sautéing onions and perhaps garlic with some meat, and blending this with fresh or left-over vegetables, maybe grated cheese and finally forming the “gravy” with sour cream, canned soup, fruit juice or broth. The crispy, golden top was largely “cook’s choice,” made from crushed chips, popcorn, crackers or bread crumbs, and they were always dotted with “butter” for that golden crispy crunch on top.
This done, the cook could kick back and relax until she lifted out her golden masterpiece, oozing with aromatic, bubby juices lapping its crispy edges. Casseroles were always a coup for the cook, and hardly a husband would protest in front of the kids when mom was saving money. Hey, meat, starch, a veggie in a steamy gravy – that was a balanced meal!
Simply put,“To casserole in the British Isles and France meant to use a utensil to cook meat or poultry with vegetables and liquid in the oven with low heat to insure slow cooking.” In France a casserole can mean a dish made with rice, which after cooking is pressed into a mold with the center filled with meat or fish.This is known as a timbale. In the U.S. a casserole means a dish made of two or more ingredients, usually rice or pasta with meat, vegetables and gravy, served from the casserole dish at the table. Cousins of the casserole method are cassolets, gratins, timbales, main dish rings, soufflés, loaves and things scalloped as well as escalloped.
Caseroles were labor savers. Nearly all of them are better cooked in advanced, left to cool, then reheated. This is especially true if wine is an ingredient. Also, meat flavor is often enhanced if it’s not eaten immediately. Freezing is a plus. Many cooks make two or three casseroles at a time, cooked one and freeze the others.
Casseroles, responsible for the terms, “covered dish” and “pot luck” became very popular in America in the 1950s, when lightweight, covered baking dishes became available. Heavy, awkward casserole earthenware dishes do date back to 2000 years B.C. in Ancient Egypt. Today, serving dishes are the darlings in kitchen boutiques, and there’s hundreds of types to choose from. See them in rustic earthenware which is glazed or unglazed, cast iron, enamelware, copper, stainless steel, porcelain, flameproof/oven-proof glass or terracotta.
Casseroles were responsible for elevating canned soups to “gravy” status, and later General Mills lent a hand with Hamburger Helper and Tuna Helper. In the late ‘90s, they extended their help to include a “culinary” twist, such as Chicken Fettuccini Helper. Today fresh herbs, exotic grains and unusual vegetables make casseroles a whole new taste game!
Ethnic dishes entered the casserole world. Some are Italian Lasagna, Mexican Enchiladas, Chili Rellenos, Wet Burritos, and Tamales, Armenian Dolmas, Louisiana Jambalaya, Hungarian Goulash, also Cabbage Rolls, the Greek Moussaka, Swedish Meatballs and American Meat Pies.
Then there’s the world of fruit casseroles. Not too many went there when casseroles first came ‘round. Probably the simplest of all casseroles to prepare, they’re tasty made with fresh or frozen fruits. Most combinations are good served hot or cold. For toppings, try any flavor ice cream, sour cream, cottage cheese, mascarpone, whipped cream, double cream or goat cheese. Use your imagination.