Saturday, 12 January 2008

How to Make a Casserole

I should be doing readings for class right now, but will instead tell you how I cook. This is primarily for people who believe they can't cook. If you can cook, this will probably not help you at all.

You will need:

1) An oven.
2) A stovetop, 2+ burners ideal
3) A casserole dish (glass, rectangular, medium-deep)
4) Any of the ingredients discussed.

To my way of thinking, a casserole consists of roughly 6 elements. These are generally interchangeable, but some go better with others. We will get to this later. However, on to the 6 elements.

1) Base/sauce.
I say 'base/sauce' not because it could be one or the other; they are the same thing. I say 'base/sauce' because it is best to think of it in terms of both. This is supposed to hold your whole dish together as far as flavour is concerned, and I usually put some of it in the bottom. It shouldn't be too subtle; the whole casserole should be flavoured by the sauce. On the other hand, it shouldn't be too strong, since that would overpower the other elements. Further, it should be fairly thick, or else the other parts will be swimming in the sauce, and that has poor presentation value. I usually use either tomato/pasta sauce ('original', not flavoured, whenever possible), alfredo sauce (original, not garlic), or cream-of-something soup (chicken, celery). More often than not, I mix the tomato sauce with one of the other elements. Feel free to experiment.

2) Starch.
I'm not talking about cornstarch here. I mean either potatoes, pasta, or rice. I have never used rice, but I imagine you could. If you use pasta, make sure it is something fairly small and easy to use with a fork or spoon: so no fettecini, no spaghetti or spaghettini, and no tortellini or capuletti. Penne, rotallini, shell, elbow, and the like are ideal. If you use potatoes, go for small chunks or thin slices. You will want a lot of this.

3) Meat.
Make sure you check your guests' dietary restrictions before deciding on this one. I usually use ground beef or ground pork for this, but this also works if you have leftovers you'd like to finish. Do you have some roast beef or a pork roast in the fridge you want to get rid of? I've used a mix of ground beef and pulled pork from a leftover roast and found it worked very well. You could use slices of sausage. You could also use tuna. However, I will note here that tuna is better with alfredo or cream-of-x soup than with tomato sauce, and better with pasta than with potatoes. Other meats go equally well with either.

4) Veggies.
If you find that you or your guests have difficulty getting their veggie count in, this is a good way of filling that. The easy solution is one of those frozen veggie mixes, but if you want a bit better quality you can chop up any combination of carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, and peppers for this. These should be available in the local supermarket during any season. These all have different cooking times, though, so watch that. Peas are very good if you want the veggies to blend in, and I find canned corn an excellent option that keeps in the cupboard a while. Corn, carrots, and cauliflower look less like vegetable for those carnivores you might know, but have less of the green-veggie nutrients. Spinach or zuchinni would be interesting options, I think, but I've never tried them before. Generally, I put the green veggies in alfredo or cream-of sauces and the less green veggies (corn, pepper, cauliflower, carrots) in the tomato sauce. I do this because the colours look better together: the tomato sauce does not lack vibrancy, and thus does not need augmentation, while the alfredo does lack it and thus could use the green to add some flair.

5) Spices, herbs, and some other special tricks.
I have some favourite herbs and spices that I use a lot. In alfredo or cream based dishes, I use thyme, rosemary, and parsley. In tomato-based dishes, I use paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper, oregano, and basil. I don't stick to these rules, however; you could through parsley in tomato or oregano and basil into alfredo. The real trick, though, is to use ingredients other than spices to add personality. I use raisins whenever I can (that is, whenever I have guests who will eat them), and I also add oatmeal to thicken the sauce and add some fibre. Sometimes I use tiny pieces of real bacon (I know, I know; bacon is meat. But it functions as a surprise, and that's the point). You can have fun with this: look through your cupboards and fridge and see if there are any odd or unconventional ingredients you can throw in and surprise people with.

6) Cheese.
This is crucial. I like to use two or three kinds whenever possible. For instance, I will mix old cheddar and mozzerella. If you have a marbe, though, that might work. Parmesan is also a nice choice to go with a heavier block cheese. If you don't have a cheese grater, something crumbly is likely your best bet. Otherwise, you will be forced to use slices and those do not work as well. Colby, I find, crumbles fairly well. Feta in small quantities also goes over well, but make sure you use something other than feta as well.

These are the six elements. Feel free to mix and match as you will. Now for composition.

1) Begin the vegetables. Chop up anything fresh. Throw it all in a pot with a little bit of water, and start boiling/steaming. You may want to keep in mind how long it takes each elements to cook, but if some of it is overcooked, don't worry. Just make sure the carrots are soft. If you're using potatoes, you can add them to the veggies. Note that carrots and potatoes will take the longest to cook. Canned veggies will not need to be cooked.

2) Start preparing the meat. If it isn't ready to eat, don't put it in the casserole yet. Brown the beef, boil (or BBQ) the sausages, fry the bacon; do whatever you need to do to make the meat edible. You can likely do this while the veggies boil/steam.

3) Once the meat is done, or while the meating is cooking if it's something you're boiling, prepare the starch. Make sure the pasta or rice are already edible, though it could be a little firmer than you're used to.

4) Arrange your sauces and 'extras' so that they are easily accessible.

5) Put some sauce (about half of what you plan to use) in the bottom of the casserole dish. It should cover the bottom, about a quarter-of-an-inch think at most. If you are using multiple sauces, I'd suggest using only one at the bottom.

6) Put in the starch. If you cooked potatoes in with veggies, then the veggies can go in as well. Drain the pasta, potatoes, or stove-cooked rice, of course.

7) Select one spice or herb and sprinkle it over this.

8) Pour over the remaining sauce, about twice as much as you put in the bottom.

9) Start pre-heating your oven. I suggest 325-350.

10) Pour in the meat and veggies. Any spices and 'extras' (ie. raisins, oatmeal, bacon) should also go now. Feel free to include some of the herbs. Of course, drain the veggies of water and the meat of grease before you do this.

11) Grate the cheese over the casserole. You could grate it over a cutting board and then transfer it, but grating it over the casserole dish itself uses fewer dishes and requires less guesswork concerning quantity. Make sure the entire surface should be evenly covered. Recall that once the cheese melts, it will look like less.

12) Throw parmesan and any last herbs on top of the cheese.

13) Put it in the oven for about 15-20 minutes. Basically, since everything is already cooked, we're looking to heat it throughout, melt the cheese, and allow the flavours to mingle.

14) Serve.

I'm not giving quantities because it's all play-by-ear anyway. I usually use 2 lbs of meat, twice as much pasta, 16 oz. of sauce, and then figure the rest out from there. That serves 3-4 guys, and we're usually full and have left-overs. I don't really use quantity directions anyway. I just figure it out as I go.

Very importantly, that order doesn't matter. The cheese should go on top, but I often find I mix the pasta and sauce in together and things like that. You could also have fun lining the edges with carrot slices or something like that. You could arrange sausages slices on top of the cheese, too. Anyway, the point is to try new stuff and have fun!

Sample ingredients combination: ground beef, tomato sauce, cream of chicken soup, fresh broccili, rigatoni noodles, thyme, rosemary, oregano, cheddar cheese.

Or: left-over pork, tomato sauce, frozen green beans, fresh carrots (sliced), potatoes (sliced), cumin, paprika, cayenne pepper, raisins, cheddar and parmesan cheese.

Or: sliced sausage, tomato sauce, alfredo sauce, penne noodles, a fresh red pepper, thyme, parsley, paprika, cayenne papper, cumin, cheddar cheese.

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