Monday, December 04, 2006

Cassoulet = Cool, Casserole = Uncool?

Can it be true there's now a generation of eaters who haven't enjoyed homemade casseroles? You know, those one-pot wonders: something meaty, something starchy, something goopy to hold it all together, and probably some cheese and/or breadcrumbs sprinkled over the top as it bakes to bubbling yumminess.
Classic example — tuna noodle casserole. You've never had one of those?
Well, I didn't make a tuna noodle casserole myself until about 22 years ago, although I dutifully devoured my share of my mother's version of them, as a child.
They just sort of fell out of favor. OK, they fell out of fashion.
They got uncool when we budding foodies learned about more exotic, more refined, more (yeah) expensive preparations and ingredients.
Then a fun thing happened. "Irony."
Martinis. Frank Sinatra. Retro was neat-o. And buddy, if you had a hip bone (not necessarily a hipbone) in your body at all, your dedication to irony would have to take you as deep as you dared go.
To casseroles.
In 1984 Jane and Michael Stern published the ultimate retro recipe book, Square Meals. (It's still in print, a revised paperback with a much-less groovy cover now — boo.) This book features not one, but four tuna casseroles. Just to give you an idea where they're at.
How liberating it was to make such stupidly easy food and feel edgy about it! Tuna casseroles — and regrets — I've had a few.
I'm a little off canned tuna these days, so I've had to look elsewhere for my ring-a-ding-ding one-dish dandies.
Lurch forward to the early 90s. My local paper published a cornball recipe for using Thanksgiving leftovers: Turkey Tortilla Casserole. It was the height of goofiness, made from corn tortillas, shredded turkey, green peppers, onions, grated cheese, sour cream, and canned mushroom soup.
I had to have it.
And now I do, once a year, although I've learned to skip the can of sodium and make up my own bechamel with added mushrooms.
But it doesn't use up all the leftover turkey.
So this year I tried yet another retro casserole. It was inspired by the current issue of Saveur, which has a whole story on casseroles — told from the perspective of how horribly un-chic they are, but that their time to shine must come again. The inspiration was Chicken Divan (broccoli, turkey instead of chicken, something goopy, cheese), and when I say I was "inspired by" the recipe, I mean I just went into the kitchen and threw things together. I used flavors I wanted (a little Dijon mustard in the bechamel instead of sherry and nutmeg). Substituted dry Jack for the parmigiano-reggiano. Left out the almonds (?) altogether.
And it came out great.
Really, if you don't have casseroles in your kitchen repertoire, you're missing out.
You don't need a recipe for a casserole if you know what it's supposed to be. If you have a basic understanding of how to get there.
If you have a casserole dish to bake it in.
I still have my Corning Ware dish with the blue flowers. Not even Saveur managed to scrounge up one of those icons for their photo spread.
And if you must know, I got the Corning Ware as a gift for starting a bank account. Back when banks gave gifts.
It's that old.


Abby said...

Casseroles are SO EASY and SO QUICK when you have a family to feed. And a husband who loves them. Not all the time, mind you, but sometimes that gooey goodness just hits the spot. As you know.

My fave is my mom's chicken casserole, with cornbread crumbs and cream of chicken soup - no-sodium, of course. ;) It makes me feel 10 years old again!

cookiecrumb said...

Abby: Cranky and I were spoofing about how "swanky" chicken divan is. Name sounds kinda "divine," and there's that urbane broccoli in there... We were stylin'.
So it can make you feel growed-uppy, too. Cool.

Erin S. said...

Didja see the NYT book section this weekend? They feature some of the best cookbooks of the year, and include one from the Minnesota Historical Society: HOT DISH HEAVEN: Classic Casseroles From Midwest Kitchens.

Being a midwesterner myself that grew up on "Daddy Casserole"--baked beans, hamburger, topped with pillsbury biscuits and chedder cheese--I think I have to buy it. Also, my husband made it thru college on tater tot casserole--featured in the book, I guess.

cookiecrumb said...

Erin: Daddy Casserole! I could probably make that with my eyes closed, and I've never even had one.
I'll go dig the book review out of the recycling. :D

kudzu said...

My blue-and-white Corning casserole twin to yours was broken only last year, but I still have the rectangular version that is white inside and black outside with the same flowers, in white (the sophisticated version, I guess). This was a wedding present in 1958!!

My Aunt Torrey in Atlanta put crushed potato chips on the top of her tuna casserole. I thought it the height of city food. Have you -- or any other readers -- been hooked on Johnny Marzetti, a ground beef-elbow macaroni-tomato and cheese beauty from the Midwest? Yum!!

cookiecrumb said...

Hey, Kudzu: Wow, B&W Corning Ware? Too cool for school. I don't think I've ever seen it. I should scour the second-hand stores. Would you want to replace your broken one? EBay might do the trick.
Nope, never heard of the Johnny Marzetti. Though I'm sure I've eaten it! It sounds so... normal!
But, oh yes. Potato chips on the tuna casserole. My mom had a recipe from the back of the potato chip bag that omitted noodles entirely, and subbed potato chips (rehydrated with milk and soup) right into the whole mix. Salty goodness. The chips sort of reconstituted into potato slices.

Anonymous said...

And I thought Chicken Divan had been ruined for me, forever. My ex-stepmother used to make it and, well, you can imagine the rest.

Seems like an entirely different food altogether. Yum!

Dagny said...

The word casserole always makes me think of Corning Ware with the blue flowers. Probably because that's what my mom used when I was growing up. Still has them in fact. I think she got hers with green stamps though. Oh, the joy of pasting those things in the books.

Dagny said...

Oh, and just saw your comment about potato chips. Somewhere around the late 70s my mom switched from using noodles to using potato chips. And topped the casserole with cheddar cheese. Good stuff.

Moonbear said...

I thought I was older than most of your hipster/foodie fans, Cookiecrumb, but today I realize I am in my peer group. Anyone who remembers the tasty glue on the green stamps, and actually bought a casserole dish... I am swept back into my chldhood and young adulthood by these memories, including the tuna noodle casserole. And, I got a very fine set of flatware with my early marital green stamp cash in-- they just don't make stainless like that anymore.
I am serving tuna noodle casserole for my solstice party, for sure.

cookiecrumb said...

Well, ya know, Tammy. Make it your own. Reclaim it. But, for personal psychological reasons, I can understand if you never wanted to face it again. (Martinis do help.)

Dagny! I bought a *huge* (non-Corning Ware) casserole with Green Stamps. I think it got away somehow, but man. It would feed 12, easy.
Cheddar! No, not on tuna, not for me. (Though I will tackle the odd tuna melt... So sue me.)

Moonbear: So will you romp with us? Fire up your blog? You are among friends.

kudzu said...

God, how retro can we get? I love all this food memory stuff about not just the dishes (and how we got them) but the variations. Aunt Torrey's tuna with potato chip topping was salty enough -- even then -- but I can't imagine chips instead of noodles....Did anyone else ever do turkey tetrazzini with not one but two soups, where you actually break spaghetti into the mixture without pre-cooking it? It's slightly gloppy but as all those Fifties associations: soup, a little meat, a lot of starch and out-there amounts of sodium.

PS I can one-up you all: I helped with books of ration stamps when I was a teensy during WWII.

cookiecrumb said...

Kudz: My childhood memories of food somehow stifled the hideosity of the salt. I know I loved that insane green bean casserole; now it's just poison. And I thought the pure potato chip tuna casserole was kid heaven; now it makes my throat pucker.

I can't top you on the ration stamps.
But I could tell you about Turkey Tetracycline. (Refrigerator is your friend.)

Tea said...

Well, my Northern California, alternative, vegetarian childhood didn't have many casseroles in it. I had to wait until high school when I babysat for a family from the Midwest and was introduced to the joy of tuna noodle. I still have the recipe the mom gave me--mushroom soup, mayo, cheese, tuna and noodles, baked into a goopy mess. It's fantastic!

Anonymous said...

I love a good casserole on a winters evening. New to my ensemble is a spicy Morrocan tagine, delicious modern day casserole.

Kate said...

I love casseroles and being a good midwestern girl, I grew up eating a lot of hotdish. We even had 'cold dish' too in the summer. It was yummy, and I wonder if my sis and I could recreate it??

I posted my grown up version of tuna casserole on my site and darn near every day I get hits from someone looking to 'upgrade' tuna casserole. Every frickin' day!!!! I guess there are lots of casserole-aholics out there just dying for their fix. But my corningware also evolved to a lovely blue Anchor casserole dish. Just lovely!

Kevin said...

I never quit eating casseroles -- I just quit admitting it. And I make a killer tuna casserole (and I bake my mac-n-cheese).

cookiecrumb said...

OK, I think we have some winners here.

Tea: For mayo in the mix. Mayo????? Zow.

Beccy: For "tagine." Boy, you're right, that certainly is contemporary cuisine's trendy casserole with a pointy hat.

Kate: For daily tuna casserole hits! Aw, jeez. I'm comin' over to check out your recipe too.

Kevin: For tact. Not exactly lying, just being foodily diplomatic. (Come back for my mac'n'cheese post in the near future, BTW.)

Mary Sue said...

Oh Lord Almighty. I think it may be because I'm young, but all those recetas for casseroles make me want to yurk. Canned soup and mayo are fine in small doses, but mixed together? Ew. No thanks.

Although the Housemates (who are all younger than I am) were very, very confused by my recent Turkey Enchilada Casserole (layer tortillas, turkey, Monterey Jack, and canned enchilada mole [because I am not insane enough to make my own]). But, they ate it, I ate it, and there was no more fapurshkin' turkey in the fridge!

Stacie said...

man, that is old!! ;D! I LOVE CASSEROLES! There, I said it! Throw away the "can o' sodium", and forget yer mamas casseroles! Casseroles are a great way to use up leftover, make a meal in about 5 min plus baking time, and KIDS LOVE 'EM! Yeah!! I make 'em up as I go... like you said, something meaty, something starchy, something gooey, all the food groups, baby! I'm excited! Casserole for dinner boys!!
ALSO: I thought I scored a Corning at a garage sale, but it was a microwave browning dish?? I think it might incinerate anything touching the weird bottom, have you ever seen one of these?

cookiecrumb said...

Hey Mary Sue: Old people gots good taste too. We just didn't useta have it when our moms were in charge. See, the canned soup and mayo mix is SCARY! We're just laughing that we actually ate that stuff at all.
OTO, I love the idea of your fapurshkin' turkey casserole. I still have some turkey in the freezer. Heh.

Stacie: Bink!
I don't know about that microwave browning dish. I got my last used Corning Ware at a Buddhist Temple "church" sale. It is holy!

sher said...

I love casseroles!! Loved good tuna noodle casserole and chicken divan and all that jazz. In fact, I'm going to make a nice enchilada casserole soon!

cookiecrumb said...

Sher: Kumbaya.

Kevin said...

Warn me before you make the mac-n-cheese and I'll make and post mine at the same time.

cookiecrumb said...

Kevin: Fun! It's seriously on my mind, and as soon as I can clear out the larder just a bit, I'm on it. Deal.

Kevin said...



lucette said...

I have one of those Corning ware dishes that was my mother's--it's a kitchen icon now, and I think of her every time I use it.
ps: we had tuna casserole last night.

cookiecrumb said...

Lucette: I also have two little baby Corning Ware casseroles that nest inside. Even they're not small enough sometimes, when you don't want the leftovers hanging around in the fridge for days. (But I have a solution for that I'll be blogging about soon!)