Tuna noodle casserole, I'll do you one better

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By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 29, 2010

After a lifetime of ambivalence toward the casserole, I have reconsidered my position.

This holiday season has 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 trips to visit 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, thanks mostly to the fact that 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.

The truth was, even if the tinny chemical taste of cream-of-whatever soups or the sad, muddy nullity of canned asparagus or frozen broccoli made me want to pass up those dishes, those other inducements enticed me like sirens.

I would eagerly help myself to seconds of hash brown casserole (frozen hash browns, cream of chicken soup, cheddar cheese, sour cream, cornflakes) or Betty Jean's Casserole, a family favorite made with browned ground beef, macaroni, celery, onions, a bottle of ketchup and half a loaf of Velveeta melted on top. I guess I didn't stand a chance against the vast conglomerate conspiracy to coat the world in high-fructose corn syrup and top it with bubbly, Day-Glo-orange "cheez" food.

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 basically empty), I set out to devise some one-dish wonders of my own, minus the cans of soup and other processed ingredients.


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