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    Sunday, February 26, 2012
    That Old Time Casserole Rock and Roll

    I have a weakness for casseroles. They're just so retro, with overtones of old-school church suppers and comforting, ideal moms who were home ec majors. Most casseroles taste great and they stick with you, plus you generally are left with lots of leftovers for lunches.

    Casseroles are also billed as "economical," but I would not necessarily agree with this claim. As the late, great Peg Bracken pointed out they generally call for expensive ingredients such as pimento, mushrooms, almonds or other nuts, and cheese. Casseroles can be made without these extras, but you lose a lot of flavor and the end result is likely to be one of those heavy, gloppy, beige dishes loathed by today's food writers. Still, they feed a lot of people and are especially useful because they will fill the need of either protein + veg or protein + starch. You then need only a salad or something like rice to serve the casserole on.

    They are high-calorie; no way around that. You can lighten them up a bit by subbing vegetables in for the pasta (broccoli and asparagus work well here). If you are looking for a binding sauce that's lower in calories than the usual butter/flour/milk white sauce, use either skim milk or fat-free broth and add cornstarch to thicken. I have tried this and found that it works very well. If you use the milk/cornstarch option, get ready to drag out every herb in your arsenal because the resulting sauce has very little taste!

    Another bonus of casseroles is that they can be made ahead and frozen, then produced on short notice. Hence the ubiquity of casseroles as "crisis food." If someone dies or is hospitalized, you bring a casserole. It's one less thing for the bereaved or stressed-out family to worry about. If you are planning to freeze your creation, I recommend undercooking the vegetables and pasta slightly so you don't wind up with a mushy, textureless final product.

    I recently came across a casserole recipe billed as a good Christmas gift which I've been meaning to try; I finally got around to it this weekend. Let me just say you wouldn't catch me making this to give away at Christmas, not because it isn't good but because it is a fair amount of work. I might give it to a dear friend who had recently been bereaved. If I could bring myself to part with it.

    Chicken, Mac and Cheese Casserole
    from Better Homes and Gardens "Food Gifts" Magazine 2011
    serves 6 to 8

    8 oz. dried penne pasta
    1 lb. skinless boneless chicken breast
    1 T. olive oil
    1-2 tsp dried Italian seasoning, crushed (I used 1/2 tsp each basil, oregano and dried parsley)
    1/8 tsp each salt and pepper
    3 T. butter
    1/2 C. chopped onion
    2 minced cloves garlic
    3 T. flour
    2 T. tomato paste
    3 C. milk
    2 C. shredded cheese (8 oz) - I used Cheddar but recipe says Swiss or Gruyere will also work.
    2 C. soft bread crumbs
    1/2 C. shredded Parmesan
    3 T. melted butter

    Okay. Get a big pot of water on the stove for the pasta and then get started. I found it helpful to prep the ingredients ahead of time. Chop the onion and garlic, mix the herbs, salt and pepper, dice the chicken breast and grate the cheese. To make the breadcrumbs I tore up three slices of bread and put them through the Cuisinart.

    In a large skillet, heat the 1 T oil over medium heat. Add the diced chicken breast and sprinkle as it cooks with the herbs, salt and pepper. Cook till no raw or pink chicken can be seen and then take it out of the pan and drain on paper towels.

    In the same skillet melt the butter and add the onion and garlic. Cook gently till tender, then add the flour and stir well till combined. Let this cook for a minute then add the tomato paste; incorporate this and then gradually add the 3 cups milk. Cook till thick and bubbly and stir in the cheese till melted. Check for seasoning and add more salt and pepper if needed.

    During all this, you will have gotten the pasta cooked. Drain it, put back in the pasta pot, add in the chicken and cheese sauce and stir well. Place the mixture either in a 9x13 inch pan or two smaller pans (the total surface area should be about 117 sq. in, which is the area of the 9x13 pan. I try to use this rule if I am splitting a recipe into smaller serving sizes to freeze).

    The topping: mix the breadcrumbs, Parmesan and melted butter. Place this into a plastic bag or bags for topping later. To cook, place the casserole (covered with foil) in preheated oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, then remove foil and cover with breadcrumb mixture and bake another 30-40 minutes. If you are freezing casserole, cover tightly with foil and attach the bag of crumbs. Thaw overnight in refrigerator before cooking.

    This is good stuff and I highly recommend it, if you can put up with the workload and number of dishes you will dirty in the process.




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