When the winter months rush in, soups and stews offer quick and instant comfort. By the time February rolls around, your palate may start to get antsy. Don't get discouraged -- get creative. Emily Farris, founder and author of Casserole Crazy: Hot Stuff For Your Oven and CasseroleCrazy.com, has made it her mouthwatering mission to show that cans of creamed mushroom and broccoli are not the be-all, end-all of the one-dish specialty.
Updating the classic casserole
Farris says she wants Americans to understand that casseroles aren't just for church potlucks and Midwestern dinner tables. She explains that, in the 50s and 60s, canned ingredients, quick dinners and anything that could be done easily had a certain charm, but in the decades that followed, the one-dish specialty lost its popularity."By the 70s and 80s, after canned ingredients lost their luster, casseroles quickly became synonymous with Milwaukee's Best and El Caminos," said Farris. "While I wouldn't mind having an El Camino of my own, the comparison wasn't completely unwarranted. What people don't realize, however, is that casseroles can just as easily be made with fresh, flavorful ingredients."
Good food for tough times
Especially now, when times are tough, the casserole is extremely budget friendly due to its versatility."A casserole is like a quilt: You can make an ugly one or a pretty one, a warm one or a cold one. It's all about the materials you use," says Farris. "Casseroles are the ultimate recession food, and luckily, we now have the resources -- and recipes -- to go above and beyond canned, bland ingredients."
Pasta + creativity = one delicious casserole
At a loss for where to start? Farris suggests pasta. The first casserole she ever made was tuna noodle, and as she mentions in her intro to Casserole Crazy, she followed her aunt's recipe the first time and was soon making her own changes and additions."Pasta is a great way to start because it's cheap," says Farris. "Make sure you don't overcook it first, though, and mix it with some kind of binding agent (soup, broth, cheese) and whatever other ingredients you think might go well together. Casseroles are really all about [baking] ingredients that you like into one delicious dish."
Casseroles as culinary inspiration
Most importantly, Farris hopes that her casserole mission helps people break out of their culinary shells."I never really cooked before I started making casseroles. But once I started cooking something -- anything! -- I wanted to cook everything," says Farris. "The joy of the casserole is that anyone can make one."Farris' own personal favorites are the Seduction, a fancy version of a mac-and-corn casserole made with five to six different cheeses, and the Sweet Potato Not Pie, a super-simple, fresh, savory sweet potato dish that Farris jokes is the antidote to her dad's candied sweet potatoes, which he made with canned ingredients.
Enjoy these recipes from Farris' cookbook, Casserole Crazy: Hot Stuff For Your Oven :
Serves 6 to8
1 pound cavatelli pasta
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic (which you might want to skip if you're actually trying to seduce someone)
1 large white onion
1/2 cup AE Dairy milk (low fat or skim is fine, not that it really matters at this point)
1/2 pound sharp cheddar, cubed or shredded
1/2 pound white cheddar, cubed or shredded
1/2 pound gruyere, cubed or shredded
1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, cubed
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1 bag (10 ounces) Cascadian Farm frozen organic sweet corn, kept frozen
2 plum tomatoes, thinly sliced
Salt and black pepper to tasteDirections:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Parboil the pasta, drain and set aside. In a large pot over medium heat, saute the garlic and onion in 2 to 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. When the onions begin to brown, reduce the heat to low, add the milk, and stir.
2. Add both of the cheddars and the gruyere while continuing to stir. When the cheeses begin to melt, add the pasta, stirring until the pasta is well coated. Add half of the Parmesan (1/4 cup) and stir. Add the corn while continuing to stir (it should go in frozen). Salt and pepper to taste. Add the mozzarella and stir.
3. When thoroughly mixed, transfer to a 2-3/4-quart buttered or greased casserole dish and bake, uncovered, for 35 to 40 minutes or until bubbly. Remove from oven and cover with the sliced tomatoes and the rest of the Parmesan cheese. Bake for about 15 more minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before eating.
Sweet Potato Not Pie
Serves 6 to 8
5 to 6 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large white onion, chopped
1 green, habanero or jalapeÃ±o pepper, depending on how much spice you like
6 to 8 ounces fresh goat cheese
Approx 3/4 cup olive oil
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Cover the bottom of a 2-1/2-quart casserole dish with a layer of sweet potatoes. Add a layer of onions, peppers and crumbled goat cheese. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Repeat layers until you reach the top of your dish (try to finish with sweet potatoes and just a drizzle of olive oil), saving at least 1 ounce of goat cheese for the end.2. Cover and bake for 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hours or until a fork goes through the entire dish easily. Remove from the oven and cover with the remainder of goat cheese. Bake uncovered for an additional 10 to15 minutes. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.