Skip to content

Pass the Pyrex: hot dishes are cool again

casserole.jpg

“It’s not the sexiest dish in the world,” said Farris of her signature casserole, Seduction. “But it’s worked in multiple situations.” (courtesy of Emily Farris)

When Emily Farris decided to start cooking casseroles in Brooklyn, N.Y., a few years ago, her friends found her reinventions amusingly nostalgic but delicious. Now that the economy is limiting trips to the farmers’ market, they’re cooking their own one-dish wonders and competing for the most innovative recipes, from an egg, pork and fried-pickle casserole to an autumnal duck and pumpkin concoction.

Farris, 26, held her fourth annual casserole cook-off last fall and was overwhelmed with responses. For the first time, there was a waiting list—20 people, after the 30 allotted entries. The winner: King of Cauliflower casserole, a recession-era foodie’s amalgamation of orange cauliflower florets, sliced purple potatoes, bacon, honey and apples in a garlicky cream sauce and topped with a Parmesan crust.

“Everyone wants to talk about casseroles right now. Not only are they cheap, but they’re easy,” says Farris, a writer who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., eating old-school casseroles like tuna noodle and broccoli cheese and now lives on updated versions out of necessity.

Hard times have created a hunger for comfort food on the cheap. No longer a bland relic of flyover country, the casserole has experienced renewed popularity as people scrimp on groceries—and there’s not a can of cream of mushroom soup in sight. Kitsch is cool, and more important, it’s affordable. People nationwide are creating contemporary renditions of classic casseroles that can be cooked in a single Pyrex dish and feed a crowd on a budget.

“I can eat off of a casserole for a week, and I’m not spending $20 a night on takeout,” Farris says. Her first cookbook, “Casserole Crazy: Hot Stuff for Your Oven” (HP Trade, 2008), contains shoestring recipes like her signature dish Seduction, a glutinous blend of cavatelli, olive oil and milk with colorful vegetables and five types of cheese.

Casseroles (or hot dishes, if you’re from Minnesota) have been a landing spot for leftovers and stray veggies for decades. The first American casseroles, made from cheap cuts of meat and plenty of starchy filler, emerged from the Great Depression. In the 1950s, the wide availability of packaged goods gave rise to the quintessential canned-soup and vegetable casseroles of yesteryear’s potlucks and funerals.

Strictly speaking, a casserole is any one-dish meal that has at least two solid ingredients stirred, not layered, together with a binding agent and baked until it’s crispy on top and moist in the middle. Though rich, fatty staples hold together most casseroles new and old, today’s one-dish meals are more likely to feature Gruyère than Velveeta.

“You can go really, really fancy or any way you want,” says Cathy Erway, a New York City food blogger who writes for the Web site Not Eating Out in New York (noteatingoutinny.com).

Even when removed from its humble roots, a casserole is a comforting and homey dish, says Erway, 27, who cooks a mean Completely Elitist Orecchiette and Arugula casserole with Danish fontina cheese and pesto.

Carving out a crusty square of casserole returns us to the childish insouciance of sitting at the kitchen table without a care in the world, and recession eating is a great excuse to stay in and reinvent simpler times.

“When people are going through hard times, everyone hunkers down,” says Clifford A. Wright, author of “Bake Until Bubbly: The Ultimate Casserole Cookbook” (Wiley, 2008). “What can you cook at home when you’re not a great cook?”

Lucky for takeout junkies, a casserole leaves plenty of room for error, as long as there’s plenty of cheese, eggs or cream to cover your missteps.

Wright, 57, updated Campbell’s 1955 green-bean casserole recipe, replacing canned beans with fresh ones and ditching those puzzling fried Funyuns for crumbled bacon and crème fraîche.

“We’re not living in the 1950s, so we don’t want to use condensed soup or canned vegetables or sprinkle Fritos on top of our casseroles,” he says.

Creativity doesn’t require gourmet ingredients. Nina Marana, an unemployed mother of three in Champaign, Ill., stretches her food dollars by cooking one-dish meals such as Easy Cheesy Scalloped Potato casserole with hot dogs and instant potatoes, several times each week.

“I go to the store and look at all the items and think, ‘What can I do with this?’” says Marana, 50, who writes the food blog Ask Ms. Recipe (askmsrecipe.com). Lately she has been flooded with reader requests for casserole recipes.

Marana says she can make a roast last three days by cooking it in different casseroles instead of watching it disappear in one sitting. Her family’s total food bill is only about $250 per month, and the kids get all their food groups in one dish.

“You can get more for your money with a casserole,” she says. “People don’t know what else to do. They’re really interested.”

Restaurants too have caught on to the public’s appetite for comforting, if not cheap, nostalgia. Chefs across the country are creating haute individual portions of casseroles, from macaroni and cheese gratins to shepherd’s pie.

Evan Funke, executive chef at Atlanta’s Parish Food and Goods, introduced his own rendition of potpie two months ago. At $20 a dish, cochon de lait potpie is one of the most popular items on the menu. It’s a thick down comforter of winter warmth: a suckling pig roasted with herbs, root vegetables, pearl onions and stock thickened with butter and flour—cooked in a cast-iron skillet and topped with flaky puff pastry.

“Potpie evokes childhood memories,” says Funke. “People want to eat and feel good. It’s soul-satisfying.”

Because dividing a family-style one-dish meal into individual portions robs it of its economic virtues and simplicity in preparation, there is some debate as to whether restaurant gratins and savory personal pies—no matter how gooey and evocative of their Midwestern roots—are in fact casseroles.

“Strictly speaking, a casserole is a big, rectangular dish,” Wright says.

Seduction

  1. lb. cavatelli pasta

1/4 cup olive oil

  1. cloves garlic, minced (you might want to skip if you’re actually trying to seduce someone)
  2. large white onion, chopped

1/2 cup milk (low-fat or skim is fine, not that it really matters at this point)

1/2 lb. sharp cheddar, cubed or shredded

1/2 lb. white cheddar, cubed or shredded

1/2 lb. Gruyère, cubed or shredded

1/2 lb. fresh mozzarella, cubed

1/2 cup Parmesan, grated

  1. bag (10 oz.) Cascadian Farm frozen organic sweet corn
  2. plum tomatoes, thinly sliced

Salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Parboil the pasta, drain and set aside.

In a large pot, sauté the garlic and onion over medium heat 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. Add both of the cheddars and Gruyère while continuing to stir. When the cheeses begin to melt, add the pasta, stirring until it is well coated. Stir in half of the Parmesan (1/4 cup), the still frozen corn and the mozzarella. Salt and pepper to taste.

When thoroughly mixed, transfer to a 2 3/4-quart buttered or greased casserole dish and bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes or until bubbly.

Remove from oven and cover with the sliced tomatoes and the rest of the Parmesan. Bake for about 15 more minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before eating.

E-mail: ksh2119@columbia.edu