Adventures With Casserole

When my husband and I were first in the throes of wooing each other, he invited me over to his place for dinner. He already confessed that most of his meals consisted of ramen and jell-o, and I had surprised him with a vegetarian cookbook to help him improve his kitchen skills. We were about a month in to our relationship and there had already been several well planned homemade dinners at my place. I will always remember arriving that night to Chris, sweating profusely and running between his cutting board and a few steaming pots on the stove, seemingly an anxious wreck. He served me a glass of wine and a bowl of salad, which consisted of salad greens from a bag and ranch dressing. I found his fussing outstandingly cute. He was beaming with pride when he finally placed before me the plate of spaghetti in marinara tossed with cucumbers. The recipe, I later found out, called for zucchini, sauteed and carmelized. Chris had mistakenly picked up cucumbers instead and of course, left the peels on. Years later, I still tell the story of how I picked leathery cucumber skins out of my teeth all night while we laughed at his goof.

Now Chris is in school and I work, yet the meals are still overwhelmingly my responsibility. We’re all about equality in our house, so I have decided it’s about time that he step up to the plate and learn how to make a few dinners. In my humble opinion, everyone can learn to make a basic casserole and even the most obstinate kitchen klutz can make a casserole from three to four pre-made ingredients.

The always popular, housewife-friendly, cream of mushroom soup concoction provides just the right amount of ease. Since the 1950s, families everywhere have enjoyed the combination of condensed soup and noodles baked under a breadcrumb crust. This is the kind of meal perfect for a cozy night in a Cold-War bunker, served up with other post-apocalyptic fare such as Tang and Velveeta cheese. Back then, casserole was the future of food. Someday, we would all have meals that never spoiled and that could provide nourishment even after a nuclear winter. Sure, some loyal foodies would claim that in today’s market, saturated with shelf stable, chemical saturated foodstuffs, what we need is a return to natural ingredients. They would admonish me for providing a recipe that does not require actual cooking. For the most part, I am in agreement with these aspects of contemporary foodie thought, but I am trying to introduce basic food prep to someone who is terrified of kitchen failure. You simply can’t go wrong with good ol’ casserole. It is nostalgia in a baking dish, greasy, fat laden nostalgia that feels downright good.

I don’t really use a recipe for this one, as the ingredients are so basic that a recipe would only slow you down. Here’s the gist:

Basic Casserole Ingredients:
About 2 cups pasta of choice (I like ziti noodles)
2 cans of condensed mushroom soup
1 1/2 cans milk (or water or soy milk)
1 onion, chopped
2 cups of ground meat (in our case, soy burger alternative)
1 cup of peas (canned or frozen, take your pick)
1 tsp of sage
2 Tbsp paprika
1 tsp oregano
2 cups of bread crumbs (of course they’re pre-prepared)

pre-heat oven to 425. Cook the noodles for about 8mins, remove them while they are still a bit tough as they will continue cooking and absorbing liquid in the oven. In a hot, oiled skillet, sautee the onion and garlic until soft (approx. 2-3mins). Add meat and spices. Cook until browned (in our case, until hot as the soy burger comes dyed brown). Add peas if using. I always use frozen peas, these just need to be heated through. As meat browns, dump out the soup into a large mixing bowl and add the 1 1/2 cans of liquid. Whisk until smooth.
The next step requires minimal assembly. Noodles first into a 9×9 baking dish, then the meat mixture and finally the soup. Fold to not break the noodles. Top with crumbs and cover with foil. Bake for 30 – 35 minutes until brown and bubbly, this will condense the soup into a thick, hearty gravy that will stick to your ribs and put hair on your chest.

For Chris, the most difficult moments of assembling the casserole included chopping the onion and folding the noodles gently so they did not fall apart. These are really the only two times when actual cooking skills come into play. I stood over his shoulder and guided him through every step. And wouldn’t you know, when it was all said and done, he made some decent casserole.

Before it went in the oven.

The after image

Down home deliciousness

This is proof that anyone can make casserole. Today we conquer casserole, tomorrow, the world.


2 Comments on “Adventures With Casserole”

  1. Hadley says:

    Have you ever made it without the soyburger addition? I would assume it’s still awesome…

    This looks so good, but I’m not a fan of the fake meats and I don’t eat the real meats! Suggestions?

    • akindofalchemy says:

      In that case I would suggest adding more veggies. I think this would be fine with noodles, peas, broccoli, maybe some red pepper as well. Of course there is always tempeh, tofu or seitan which can all have meaty textures, but aren’t quite as processed.

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