Casseroles are one-pot dishes that are easy to make and take, but you won't find them in the index of most contemporary cookbooks.
Instead, you'll find terms such as stir-fries, baked dishes, oven stews, and veggie skillets. It's as if the idea of a convenient one-dish meal in which the food is cooked and served has been relegated to the back burner.
And yet, when casseroles are served at potluck dinners and summer picnics, the dishes are so popular that the last person in line is left praying that the one with the serving spoon will leave just few morsels.
According to the Food Lover's Companion, a casserole dish refers to a deep, round, ovenproof container with handles and a tight-fitting lid. Ingredients can include meat or poultry, vegetables, beans, rice or pasta, and anything else the cook desires. Often it is topped with cheese or bread crumbs for texture and flavor.
The filling is combined with a sauce, which can be homemade (Joy of Cooking circa 1967 used a cheese sauce or au gratin sauce for some versions) or a can of condensed cream soup. Therein lies a clue to what made casseroles fall from culinary grace: canned soup.
Most gourmets would never admit to using canned soup. Author Beth Hensperger in The Gourmet Potluck (Ten Speed Press, $18.95) reveals that in Zucchini, Turkey, and Wild Rice Casserole the two cans of condensed cream of chicken soup are a must. "I tried to make the sauce from scratch, omitting the soup, but it never tasted as good or had the right consistency," she writes.
Casseroles are called the "great American dinner" by Jennifer Hartley, senior brand manager for Campbell's Cooking Soups. "It has a French origin," she told food media at a seminar sponsored by the National Chicken Council and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association in Philadelphia in April. The term casserole is derived from cassoulet, the classic covered dish of white beans and various meats that is slow cooked.
A casserole is both a utensil and a process of cooking raw food in the utensil, according to the Joy of Cooking, 1975. The mixture is often precooked or consists of a combination of precooked and quick-cooking food.
Ms. Hartley dated the origin of the casserole to 1898 and Fannie Farmer's Scalloped Lamb. No similar dishes were found for the next 30 years. When the first edition of Irma Rombauer's The Joy of Cooking was printed in 1931, there were no casseroles.
In 1934, Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup was introduced. In 1941, Campbell's published Easy Ways to Quick Meals, which had Tuna Noodle. The Joy of Cooking, 1941 edition, had four recipes for casseroles, including Tuna Noodle. By 1951, the Joy of Cooking had 59 casseroles in the index, according to Ms. Hartley.
Based on research by Campbell's, in any given week, 25 percent of households make a casserole. The dishes are consumed throughout the year, not just during the cold-weather months. Casseroles are economical. Most cooks are proud to take a homemade casserole to a special event like a potluck or a picnic. At home, they usually make enough for leftovers.
Casseroles can be very creative, with almost a limitless number of ways to combine the basic ingredients.
Chicken, albeit in many forms, is the No. 1 protein in casseroles. "Thirty-eight percent of recipes made with soup have chicken," Ms. Hartley said.
Chicken casserole preparation surges during back-to-school months of August and September.
The classic chicken casserole is rice, not pasta, she said. Soup is the major binder. Cheese is the most popular topping, and a variety of vegetables can be used.
In the past, casseroles were made with precooked ingredients such as leftover chicken or turkey. Today's casseroles often use uncooked ingredients, including raw chicken that cooks as it bakes. But it should be noted that using a raw meat or poultry means baking time can be doubled, in order to fully cook the meat or poultry.
For example, a casserole with precooked chicken or turkey can bake in 25 minutes; Campbell's Cheesy Chicken and Rice Bake using skinless boneless chicken halves takes 45 minutes to bake. In addition, leftover chicken or turkey is cut into bite-size pieces, which are easy to serve in a dish for a potluck or picnic. Using chicken halves means the casserole is really preportioned for the four to six servings, rather than for a crowd at a potluck.
The contemporary casserole has been adapted to today's tastes and products.
The classic chicken and rice casserole can be adapted to Mexican flavors using chili powder in place of onion powder, or to Italian flavors using Italian seasoning in place of onion powder. Mexican cheese is recommended for the former and freshly grated Parmesan for the latter.
Pasta lends itself to casseroles from Tuna Noodle to Ham and Swiss Casserole made without a can of soup. (This casserole's sauce is made from half and half and shredded Swiss.)
Chicken Tetrazzini combines cooked spaghetti and strips of chicken with a sherry-Parmesan cheese cream sauce. Parmesan or bread crumbs are sprinkled over the surface. Some cooks use leftover turkey or ham.
With a busy lifestyle, most cooks don't have leftovers from large roasts or poultry. But today's supermarkets have plenty of precooked meats to use, such as Morrell's cubed, diced, or julienne ham, and precooked or Oscar Mayer precooked chicken strips or pieces. Other brands of cooked meat and poultry are available.
Using the precooked products adds to the price of the casserole, but it probably won't exceed the cost of a restaurant meal. The advantage is you can run into the store, buy the precooked ham or chicken, boil the noodles, add the sauce via a canned cream soup, and other ingredients such as fresh mushrooms or frozen peas, top the dish with cheese or bread crumbs, and get it in the oven to bake for 20 minutes.
Also, some casseroles do not have noodles or rice. A Taco Casserole can be made with ground beef and tortilla strips with vegetables, sauce, etc. One-Dish Stuffing Bake uses herb-seasoned stuffing with boneless, skinless chicken breast halves.
Ground beef and zucchini are the main ingredients in Ground Beef and Zucchini Italian Casserole from The Classic Zucchini Cookbook (Ralston, Jordan, and Chesman, Storey Books, $14.95), which can be served over rice or stuffed in pita pockets.
Casseroles are a fast meal, a comfort food, and an ever-popular potluck dish. Don't hesitate to make your own creation.
Kathie Smith is The Blade's food editor.
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