After a lifetime of ambivalence toward the casserole, I have reconsidered my position.
The recent holiday season convinced me that when a surfeit of obligations comes up against a paucity of time, it's not such a bad thing to have a lamb-and-eggplant shepherd's pie in the freezer for relatives or unexpected guests.
To many, the all-American casserole evokes heartwarming comfort-food memories. But that is not my experience. My mother turned her nose up, literally, at the mention of the word; having made nothing but casseroles as a newlywed, she could not stand the thought of them once she "learned how to cook."
"Casserole," she liked to say, "is the French word for glop."
Despite our mother's interdiction, my siblings and I, children of divorce, were regularly exposed to casseroles during visits to our father in Alabama. Our stepmother's repertoire included perennially popular concoctions: asparagus-pea, broccoli-rice, green bean-mushroom. Those offerings did not necessarily disprove our mother's assessment of casseroles, mostly because their main ingredients, condensed soup and canned or frozen vegetables, shared exactly the same soft, unappetizing texture.
But along with the abundance of sodium that some of those ingredients contained, other taste-bud triggers made the casseroles hard to resist: fat of some sort; gooey or processed cheeses; sour cream; crunchy toppings such as crushed cornflakes, buttered bread crumbs and frizzled onions; and sometimes the ultimate bet-hedger: bacon.
When I cooked professionally, my relationship with such ghastly amalgamations became more complicated. I accepted them as a guest but rejected them as a chef.
Of course, when convenient, I just decided to put foods I liked in a separate category. Let's face it: Lasagna is a casserole. The pleasure we derive from it is directly proportional to the amount of cheese it contains.
And so, as a supposed entertaining expert who has been caught off-guard more than once in recent weeks (no time to go to the grocery store; friends coming over in an hour; fridge all but empty), I set out to devise some one-dish wonders of my own, minus the cans of soup and other processed ingredients.
For the basic formula, I broke out the components of most one-dish meals (protein, vegetable, starch) and filled in the blanks. I started with a personal favorite, shepherd's pie, and gave it a Mediterranean tweak.
For Moroccan chicken pearl couscous casserole, I matched the ingredients of a vegetable tagine (sweet potatoes, zucchini, chickpeas, dried apricots, raisins, red onions) with spice-coated chicken breasts, tomatoes and chicken broth.
For a meatless-Monday dish — assembled on Sunday — I highlighted butternut squash, shiitake mushrooms and earthy kale with Asian accents. When the casserole bakes, the kale leaves on top crisp up to add a nice crunch.
I never once ate tuna noodle casserole as a kid. My recipe is made as a lasagna with peas, mushrooms, scallions, dill and a zesty bechamel sauce.
Along the way in my casserole adventure, I learned these tips:
■ If you plan to freeze a casserole straight away, line the dish with aluminum foil before filling it. Once the contents have frozen, you can remove the block from the pan, wrap it well and store it without a dish.
■ Defrost frozen casseroles in the refrigerator overnight, or pop them into the oven frozen, but double the cooking time.
■ To know whether a casserole is hot enough in the middle, insert a knife in the center, then withdraw it and see if it is hot to the touch; or cook the casserole to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.
The Thai green curry paste in this casserole, made with green chilies, garlic, lemon grass, galangal (Thai ginger), onion, coriander, cumin and kaffir lime, takes butternut squash and turns blah into bling. Kale provides nutrients as well as crunch, when the leaves on top crisp in the oven.
This casserole can be assembled 2 days in advance, covered and refrigerated. It can be frozen (unbaked) for as long as 3 months.
Butternut squash, kale and shiitake casserole
1/2 cup low-fat coconut milk
2 tablespoons Thai green curry paste, such as Thai Kitchen brand
1 teaspoon Chinese chili paste with garlic, such as Lan Chi brand
1-inch to 11/2-inch piece peeled ginger root, finely grated or puréed (1 tablespoon)
1/4 cup cream of coconut
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce or tamari
21/2 pounds peeled, seeded butternut squash, cut into 2-inch pieces
8 ounces large shiitake mushroom caps, cut into quarters
1 bunch (9 ounces) kale, center veins removed, leaves torn into large pieces, and rinsed and blotted dry
2 tablespoons white sesame seeds
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with non-stick cooking oil spray.
Use a whisk to combine coconut milk, Thai curry paste, Chinese chili paste, ginger, cream of coconut, and soy sauce or tamari in a large mixing bowl. Add squash pieces, mushrooms and kale; stir to coat evenly.
Transfer vegetables to baking dish, making sure there are plenty of kale leaves on top (so they will crisp during baking). Sprinkle the top evenly with sesame seeds. Cover with a layer of parchment paper, then seal tightly with aluminum foil. Bake for 35 minutes, then uncover and bake for 25 minutes, or until the squash is fork-tender and the kale on top is dark brown and crisp.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 110 calories, 3 g. protein, 19 g. carbohydrates, 5 g. fat, 3 g. saturated fat, 0 mg. cholesterol, 230 mg. sodium, 3 g. dietary fiber, 3 g. sugar.
With a green salad, you have a perfect winter meal.
This casserole can be assembled and refrigerated a day in advance or frozen for as long as 3 months.
Shepherd's pie with eggplant
1 pound (2 large) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 pound (1 large) sweet potatoes, cut into 1-inch slices
8 whole cloves garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
1⁄3 cup low-sodium chicken broth or heavy cream, or a combination of both
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
3/4 pound unpeeled eggplant, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes (4 cups)
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
8 ounces sliced white or baby bella mushrooms
1 small yellow onion, chopped (3/4 cup)
1 pound lean ground lamb
3 medium cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup tomato sauce
3 ounces (1⁄3 cup) crumbled feta or freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Chopped chives, for garnish
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Lightly grease a 6-cup casserole or fluted deep-dish pie plate with non-stick cooking oil spray.
For the topping: Combine potatoes, sweet potatoes and whole garlic cloves in a large pot; cover with salted water. Cook over medium-high heat until potatoes are fork- tender. Drain and put potatoes and garlic through a ricer into a large bowl. Add oil and broth and/or heavy cream, stirring until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat; cover loosely.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
For the filling: Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large non-stick sauté pan over medium-high heat until oil shimmers. Add eggplant and cook for about 5 to 7 minutes, stirring often, until it is lightly browned and soft. Season with salt and pepper to taste; transfer to bowl.
Return pan to medium-high heat; add remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Once oil starts to shimmer, add mushrooms and onion; cook for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms have exuded their juices and have browned. Add lamb, breaking it up with a spoon but not crumbling it completely. Cook 5 to 7 minutes, or until no traces of pink remain.
Drain all but a thin coating of fat from the pan (either first removing the lamb mixture and then returning it to the pan or by holding the mixture on one side of the pan as you drain). Add chopped garlic, thyme, oregano, onion powder, garlic powder, cinnamon, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Stir in tomato sauce. Cook for 1 minute, then fold in the cooked eggplant.
Spoon lamb-eggplant mixture into bottom of prepared dish. Spread mashed potato mixture over lamb, covering it completely.
For assembly: Top with crumbled feta or grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and bake for 45 minutes, until lightly browned. Garnish with chopped chives and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
Makes 6 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 520 calories, 21 g. protein, 42 g. carbohydrates, 30 g. fat, 11 g. saturated fat, 70 mg. cholesterol, 940 mg. sodium, 7 g. dietary fiber, 8 g. sugar.