The ugly "C" word ... you cringe when you hear it in relation to dinner, and you feel like a piece of you dies when you give in to making it again? That's right ... the Casserole. Poor thing. It's just so ... plain. And unassuming. No wonder casseroles get overlooked and badmouthed.
But in defense of lowly Casseroles, they are some of the easiest and heartiest meals out there. They can be a delicious cacophany of all kinds of ingredients, or simple with three or four ingredients. And there's just one or two dishes to clean up afterwards - how delightful is that?
I am somewhat hesitant about making my own casseroles (mostly because of a few mishaps with mushy vegetables and a noticeable lack of salt), but I like to make things that are easy and versatile so I find myself coming back. If you're in a similar boat, I have a few suggestions of ways to revisit the Casserole. Or, if you're not sure you want to commit to a full revisitation, at least think about putting the Casserole back on your Christmas card list.
Add cooked sausage or cooked bacon - Name one main dish that isn't better with one of those two ingredients (ok smartypants, if you just thought of ice cream, then I want to come have supper at your house.) But seriously. Mild sausage, spicy sausage, maple-flavored bacon, hardwood smoked bacon ... excuse me, I need to clean up the drool pooling in my lap. Paula Deen's lasagna, anyone?
Be creative with toppings - store-bought breadcrumbs stirred into melted butter are the standby that most of my cookbooks call for. But what about crushed potato chips, fritos, or Doritos? Or homemade breadcrumbs from yesterday's sourdough bread, pulverized in a blender with fresh rosemary and thyme? Try a couple of corn muffins, some shredded cheddar cheese, and generous amounts of butter (don't worry, I won't tell how much). Sprinkle paprika on top for a pretty visual zing.
Make your own sauses - cans are nice, and convenient. And I like convenient. But I LOVE homemade. Making your own brown gravy, white sauce, or cheese sauce is not only rewarding, but so much better tasting that it's worth the extra 8 minutes it takes to do it. My favorite white sauce (cream of something soup) recipe is here.
Try something a little different - Not so sure if you're ready to wing it with casseroles yet? Then just try this: when the recipe nonchalantly calls for something plain (say, a can of diced tomatoes), substitute it with the ingredient's older, glitzier city cousin (like a can of fire roasted tomatoes). There are tons of cheeses out there - use gorgonzola instead of cheddar, swiss in place of mozzarella, and manchego for parmesan. Same with breads. Ditch the white bread for some hearty rye crumbs. You might be surprised.
Find your go-to casserole - A casserole deserves to be liked. If you try one and don't want to give the follow-up call, try something else. But a good casserole is just that ... good. Everyone should know one.