A Casserole – It’s What’s for Dinner & Poverty Casserole

Is it possible that, with this unseasonably warm weather, you’ve neglected winter’s most tried and true culinary delight … the casserole? It’s a favorite at après-ski, skating and snowshoeing parties. Unfortunately, there’s barely been enough snow and ice this winter for après anything.

Don’t worry about it. Before winter slips into spring, get out the glorious casserole dish that you love so much. You know the one. It was a present for your first wedding. You hid it in a bundle of dirty laundry when you and your ex were doing the property division thing. Or maybe it’s the one you bought on a whim, for no other reason than it is beautiful and you deserve it.

Not to be confused with stews or soups, a casserole is good for a particularly homey feast. When I was a kid, there were two kinds of casseroles. There were the casseroles your mother made on purpose. She shopped for a long list of ingredients, threw them together with some magical sauce and served it to the delight of one and all. Leftovers and a few tired carrots or a box of frozen vegetables went into the second kind of casserole. Mothers who liked to cook made both kinds. However, I’m guessing that their carrots still had some snap to them and the broccoli was fresh. Those that didn’t like to cook, like my mother, pretty much stuck to the leftover type.

To be fair, Mom’s leftover casseroles were made in the days when the Sunday dinner ritual was still in full play at our house. Pot roast, roast pork or leg of lamb graced the family table on Sunday. It would then reappear in various forms on three or four nights.

Mom had different names for her concoctions. Bread and with-it, Mrs. Slusser’s Delight and slumgullion were her favorites. The names were interchangeable. All referred to any combination, ridiculous or sublime, of leftover roast, a starch of some sort, a can of cream-of-something soup and whatever else she could find in the refrigerator or freezer. Minute Rice was her starch of choice and cream of mushroom was her go-to soup. Her secret ingredients were a dollop of sour cream and a splash of dry sherry.

Once we gave up Sunday dinners in favor of a day on the ski slopes, a different type of casserole began to appear on our table. Although she was still partial to sauces made from cream-of-something soup or direct from the jar, Mom took her casseroles up a notch. Her baked pasta and chicken divan became favorite Saturday night suppers after a hard day on the slopes. (On Sunday night we were in the car heading back to the ‘burbs. Dinner was a stop at Howard Johnson’s or, once we got home, frozen pizza or potpies.)

My earliest forays in the kitchen involved casseroles. Whether I was playing gracious host or needed something for a potluck, a casserole is what I made when funds were low. And let’s face when you’re twenty-something, you are always low on funds. When tossing these recipes together, I didn’t channel Mom’s leftover pot roast with Minute Rice and frozen peas but her Saturday night après-ski meals.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that you don’t have to be twenty-three and broke to make a mean casserole. More important, pretty much everyone loves them, especially if baked pasta and cheese is involved.

Here’s to casseroles and bon appétit!

Poverty Casserole
I’ve made this dish for hordes of hungry college students. They wolf it down. Remembering similar dishes from his twenties, my brother has dubbed it Poverty Casserole. Enjoy!
Serves 8

1 1/2 pounds Italian sausage*; hot, sweet or a mix, casings removed
Olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons dried Italian herbs
Pinch or to taste crushed red pepper (optional)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 cups (28 ounce can) crushed tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 cup sour cream
About 12 ounces mozzarella, shredded
About 4 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
1 – 1 1/2 pounds frozen chopped spinach
About 12 ounces ricotta cheese
1 pound pasta – cavatappi, penne or rigatoni

Heat a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the sausage, breaking up the meat into bite-size pieces, cook until nicely browned. Remove from the pan. Drain the fat and reserve.

Add a little olive oil to the saucepan and reduce the heat to medium. Add the onion, sprinkle with Italian herbs, pepper flakes, salt and pepper and sauté until translucent. Add the garlic and sauté 1-2 minutes more. Add the wine and simmer until reduced by half.

Return the meat to the saucepan, add the crushed tomatoes and bay leaf and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 30-45 minutes. Cool to room temperature and stir in the sour cream.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter a large casserole. Put the mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano in a bowl, toss to combine and reserve.

Cook the pasta according to package directions, less 2-3 minutes. Saving a little of the pasta water, drain the pasta and then rinse under cold water. Drain well.

Put the pasta to a large bowl, add the sauce, ricotta and spinach and toss to combine. If the pasta seems dry, add some pasta water. Sprinkle the pasta with 2/3 of the cheese and toss again. Transfer the pasta to the prepared casserole dish and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.

You can make ahead to this point, cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before baking.

Cover and bake the casserole at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. Uncover and continue baking for 15 minutes more or until piping hot and golden.

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One Year Ago – Roasted Cauliflower
Two Years Ago – Savory Blinis
Three Years Ago – Lettuce Cups with Shrimp & Noodles
Four Years Ago – Caribbean Black Beans
Five Years Ago – Mac & Cheese with Cauliflower & Bacon
Six Years Ago – Chocolate Mousse
Seven Years Ago – Shrimp & Feta

Or Click Here! for a complete list of and links to all the recipes on this blog!

How are you doing with your resolutions? Are you resolute or not? Feel free to share!

Want more? I’ve got links to lots more to read, see & cook. © Susan W. Nye, 2016

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