You needn’t think of casseroles as troughs laden with cream-of-something canned soup and off-the-shelf components. Casseroles can showcase fresh ingredients, dishes rich in flavor as well as convenience. They can be assembled in advance and lend themselves to dividing between two pans, one to bake and one to freeze. Flexible and foolproof.
According to “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink” (Oxford, $125), casseroles of one sort or another have been around since prehistoric times, adding that they took on a distinctive American identity along the way. Many ingredients were scarce during World War I and leftovers were turned into casserole meals. The same was true during The Great Depression of the ’30s. But for many, it’s the ubiquitous tuna-potato chip casserole of the ’50s or the holiday green bean casserole that come to mind. Or maybe a ground meat and Tater Tot concoction.
Prepare to be amazed with the delicious casseroles that these updated recipes will yield.
Cauliflower and Pasta Shell Casserole
Caramelizing cauliflower gives it such an appealing toasty edge. Ina Garten, cookbook author and host of Food Network’s “Barefoot Contessa,” knows how to show off these lightly browned florets to their best advantage in this delicious casserole from her book “Cooking for Jeffrey” (Clarkson Potter, $35). It includes several cheeses, along with medium-sized pasta shells, fresh herbs, garlic, capers, and lemon zest. A crispy topping provides a contrasting crunch; it’s a mix of panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), olive oil, parsley, and Pecorino. The dish feeds a crowd. A mixed green salad makes a good partner, as well as a bowl of spicy olives.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 pound medium-sized pasta shells
2 1/2 pounds cauliflower, cut into small florets (1 large head), divided use
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh sage leaves, see cook’s notes
2 tablespoons capers, drained
1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
2 cups freshly grated Italian Fontina Val d’Aosta cheese, lightly packed (10 ounces with rind), see cook’s notes
1 cup (8 ounces) whole milk ricotta
1/2 cup panko (Japanese dried breadcrumbs)
6 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino cheese, see cook’s notes
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
COOK’S NOTES: I use fresh basil instead of sage when my garden overflows with basil (and it is delicious). I can’t always find the Italian-made fontina that Ina uses. I have substituted domestic fontina in this recipe and it is still delicious and less expensive. To grate (or rather grind) Pecorino, place cubes in food processor bowl and grind with the steel blade. To make this dish ahead, assemble without panko topping, cover and refrigerate up to 6 hours. Top with panko and bake before serving.
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Fill large pot with water; add 2 tablespoons salt and bring to boil on high heat. Add pasta and cook al dente according to package directions. Since it will be baked later, be sure not to overcook. Drain and pour into large bowl.
2. Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in large (12-inch) deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add half the cauliflower in one layer and cook for 5 to 6 minutes, tossing occasionally, until florets are lightly browned and tender. Pour into bowl with pasta, including any small bits. Add 3 more tablespoons oil and cook remaining florets until browned and tender; add to bowl.
3. Add sage or basil, capers, garlic, lemon zest, pepper flakes, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon black pepper; gently toss. Stir in fontina. Transfer half of mixture to a 10-by-13-by-2-inch baking dish (I use a 15 1/2-inch oval gratin dish). Spoon rounded tablespoons of ricotta on pasta and spoon the remaining pasta mixture on top. Combine panko, Pecorino, parsley and 1 tablespoon olive oil in small bowl and sprinkle it evenly on top. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, until browned and crusty on top and mixture is thoroughly heated.
Cheese and Chicken (or Corn) Enchilada Casserole
Casseroles with Mexican-themed ingredients are irresistible. I learned to make this layered enchilada dish while taking cooking classes at The Santa Fe School of Cooking in Santa Fe, N.M. In class we make the enchilada sauces from scratch. I’ve adapted the recipe to use store-bought sauce. I appreciate the ease of the layer-in-a-casserole approach rather than cylinder-rolling each enchilada one by one.
Once the casseroles had been baked until piping hot, portions are scooped out and topped with shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, and dollops of sour cream. On the side, I like to serve pinto beans.
Yield: 10-12 servings
Vegetable oil, for greasing pan
3 1/2 cups red or green prepared enchilada sauce
About 18 corn tortillas
4 cups cooked chicken (boned, skinned, shredded) or 3 cups corn kernels
1 1/2 pounds (6 cups) grated Monterey Jack or cheddar cheese (or a combination of both)
1 1/2 cups finely diced yellow onions
Garnish: 2 cups shredded iceberg or romaine lettuce
Garnish: 1 1/2 cups diced tomatoes
Garnish: 1 1/4 cups sour cream
Optional garnish: sliced green onions including dark green tops
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with vegetable oil.
2. Spread about 1 cup sauce over bottom of pan and layer 6 tortillas evenly over sauce (they will overlap slightly). If using chicken, toss chicken with about 3 tablespoons sauce. Spread half of chicken over tortillas. If using corn, spread half of corn over tortillas.
3. Sprinkle with one-third of cheese and half of the onion. Repeat, layering half of remaining tortillas, remaining onion and half of remaining sauce. Using a silicone spatula or back of a spoon, spread out sauce over tortillas. Add remaining chicken and half of remaining cheese. Top with remaining tortillas, remaining sauce (spreading sauce to cover tortillas) and remaining cheese.
4. Bake uncovered about 30 minutes, until bubbly and lightly browned.
5. To serve, spoon portions onto dinner plates. Garnish with shredded lettuce and diced tomato and top with sour cream.
Source: Adapted from The Santa Fe School of Cooking, Santa Fe, N.M.
Penne Casserole with Spicy Tomato Sauce, Kalamatas and Two Cheeses
Cookbook author Betty Rosbottom wrote a lovely book about casseroles several years ago. “Sunday Casseroles” (Chronicle), detailed a wide variety of one-dish concoctions. My favorite was this pasta dish adrift in a spicy, chunky tomato sauce. A duo of cheese sets a welcome counterpoint to the sauce, creamy Havarti and Parmesan. Black kalamata olives add a just-right salty accent. The author suggests rigatoni but I use any small tube-shaped pasta. For the photo, I used penne rigate (the term “rigate” means that the exterior of the pasta is furrowed so that the sauce will coat better atop the pasta).
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
6 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for the baking dish
1 1/2 cups chopped onions
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
Three 28-ounce cans diced tomatoes, drained
2 teaspoons dried basil leaves or 1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth
1 pound dried rigatoni, large macaroni, or penne pasta
2 1/2 cups shredded Havarti cheese, see cook’s notes
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano Reggiano
1/3 cup pitted and halved Kalamata olives
Garnish: 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil or Italian parsley
Cook’s notes: Grating Havarti cheese is easier if the cheese is very cold; it helps if you put it in the freezer for 10 minutes before grating.
1. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large, heavy frying pan set over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onions and garlic; sauté, stirring, for about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, basil, red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper, and stir well. Add the broth and bring to a low boil.
2. Cook until the liquid has reduced and mixture is chunky, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the heat; taste and add more salt and red pepper flakes, if desired. (Sauce can be made 1 day ahead; cool, cover, and refrigerate. Reheat before using.)
3. Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain well in a colander; give colander a shake to remove excess water. Lightly oil a 9-by-13-inch baking pan or 3 quart baking dish, and place the pasta in it. Toss the pasta with the remaining 3 tablespoons oil; taste and season with more salt if needed.
4. Add the warm tomato sauce to the pasta; toss well to combine. Add the Havarti cheese and toss again. Sprinkle the Parmesan over the top. Arrange the olives (shiny side up for a more attractive appearance if you like), over the pasta. (Pasta can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cool, cover, and refrigerate.)
5. Arrange a rack at center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the pasta, uncovered, until hot and bubbly, about 25 minutes. Remove and sprinkle with either basil or parsley.