I always loved casseroles because there were no bones. You could relax over a casserole, you didn't have to be constantly wary about picking out the fat or the gristle. A casserole is friendly. It is soothing. It is safe. And it very often contains pasta, which I considered -- and still do -- the most divine food on earth.
Grown-ups like casseroles, too. What is a boeuf bourguignon, lasagna, moussaka, or pastitsio but a marvelous casserole, all dolled up. A casserole is a complete meal in a bowl that makes the best baby present, goes to a pot-luck dinner and makes a great juggle-in-your-lap buffet dish because it can be eaten with a fork.
I can't imagine why you don't hear much about casseroles these days, since they are so perfect for working mothers to assemble ahead of time and heat up just before dinner. Although they are not necessarily easy, since the ingredients usually have to be separately precooked, they do allow for the pots and pans to be washed well ahead of serving time. For those of us at the end of the commuter line who eat a very late dinner, that means we can just chuck the leftover casserole back into the refrigerator after dinner.
My American cookbooks mention casseroles as far back as the 1930s, but they seemed to have enjoyed a bit of a vogue in the '50s. They fell into disfavor as being too homely during the gourmet period of the '70s and are certainly too soggy for the crisp, astringent leanings of nouvelle cuisine.
However, there are a great many closet casserole fans in the world, and I think I can safely predict for them a resurgence in chic. Think of it -- tuna-noodle, macaroni and cheese, ground beef and pasta, spaghetti and chicken -- how could a tepid duck-breast salad ever compare to such marvels?
These casseroles are of all stripes, but the first one is a special childhood memory. Shepherd's pie was something we all adored and could never have quite often enough. You simply would not consider making this dish for grown-ups -- it's too silly -- but if grown-ups get near it they wolf it all down. Serve the kids first. SHEPHERD'S PIE MAMA LAGUE (8 servings)
1 tablespoon oil
1 medium onion
2 pounds ground beef
Salt and pepper to taste
6 medium potatoes
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter
16-ounce can corn, drained
Heat the oil in a skillet while you are chopping the onion finely. Cook the onion in oil until it is transparent, then add the beef and brown it. Season to taste. Drain off excess fat and pat meat with paper towels to absorb more. Peel the potatoes, cube them, and boil in salted water for about 20 minutes or until soft. Drain and mash together with the milk and butter.
In a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking pan, spread the meat. Top with a layer of corn. Frost with a layer of mashed potatoes. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until heated through. Run under the broiler for 5 minutes to brown the top. CASSEROLE OF MACARONI (6 servings)
This is from a Good Housekeeping cookbook that was handed out as a promotional item 55 years ago. I like its name, its simplicity, its subtleness (especially with the mushroom sauce) and the way it conceals the eggs from the kids who don't like them.
1 cup uncooked macaroni
1 1/2 cups scalded milk
1 cup soft bread crumbs
1/4 cup melted butter or margarine plus extra for dish
1 pimento, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped chives
1 1/2 cups grated cheese
3/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
3 eggs, beaten
Cook macaroni in boiling salted water 8 minutes or until tender and drain. Pour scalded milk over bread crumbs. Add butter, pimento, chives, grated cheese, seasonings and parsley. Then add well-beaten eggs. Put macaroni in a greased casserole and pour milk and cheese mixture over it. Bake about 50 minutes at 350 degrees until firm. Serve with mushroom sauce. MUSHROOM SAUCE (6 servings)
1/2 pound mushrooms
2 to 3 tablespoons milk
6 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Dash of pepper
Remove the stems from the mushrooms and cook the stems slowly in 2 cups of water for 20 minutes. Discard the stems and pour the cooking water into a 2-cup measure, fill to the 2-cup line with milk to replace the water lost in cooking and create mushroom broth. Saute' the mushroom caps in 2 tablespoons butter about 3 minutes or until golden brown.
Melt the remaining butter in a saucepan and add flour, salt and pepper. Blend thoroughly. Blend in the mushroom broth and stir constantly until thick. Add mushroom caps. CRAB MEAT CASSEROLE (2 servings)
This is a simple, romantic casserole for two, right out of the '50s. It can easily be assembled in the morning and microwaved after work.
1/2 pound crab meat
1 cup medium white sauce (see mushroom sauce, using all milk, no mushrooms)
1/4 cup sherry
Butter for dish
1/4 cup grated cheese
Pick through crab meat, removing cartilage and shells. Heat sauce over low heat, add crab meat and sherry and stir constantly for a few minutes. Turn into well-greased casserole. Sprinkle with cheese and place under broiler for 5 minutes to brown.
(If the casserole has been refrigerated after the cheese topping has been added, reheat at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes or microwave on high for 5 minutes. A small, shallow casserole is best for this -- an au gratin dish or quiche pan. LENTIL CASSEROLE WITH SAUSAGE (6 servings)
This one is very sophisticated and different -- no noodles, no cream sauce. You may or may not get your kids to eat it, but the grownups surely will.
2 cups quick-cooking lentils
1 tablespoon salt
1 onion stuck with 2 cloves plus 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 bay leaf
12 Italian sausages, either sweet or hot
4 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper
1 cup red wine
Cover lentils with water and add salt, onion with cloves and bay leaf. Bring to a boil and simmer until the lentils are just tender. Drain. While the lentils are cooking, poach the sausages about 5 minutes in water to cover. Saute' the chopped onion in the butter. Arrange half the sausages in the bottom of a greased 2 1/2-quart baking dish and add half the lentils, a little saute'ed onion and salt and pepper. Make another layer of lentils, and top with the rest of the sausages and onion. Pour in the wine and bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 35 minutes, or until sausages are nicely brown. From "James Beard's American Cookery," Little, Brown