“My grandma used to make that” is what we often hear when a cozy casserole arrives at the table. I absolutely love casseroles.

Although many countries offer their version of a casserole, “casserole” is actually a French word meaning “saucepan.” Like the French cassoulet, casserole refers to recipes baked in a dish that we also call a casserole.

In a classic casserole we find a variety of meats, vegetables and starches combined into a single dish and baked. The combining of textures adds to making this simple dish a family favorite.

These oven baked meals serve many purposes. We can expand a small portion of protein, perk up fading veggies or bread and give a new image to all the parts during the oven sorcery of allowing all the flavors to play together. It's a simple, inexpensive form of recycling. We can energize our casseroles with herbs, spices, cheese, butter, cream, wine, beer or lemon. The possibilities are endless.

Convenient and easy to make ahead, a casserole saves time when we’re in a hurry or simply don’t feel like standing over the stove. Most casseroles freeze well and are then waiting for you on the day when you have more on your “to do” list than you have time.

The starches of your casserole are the binder that keeps it all together. Rice, pasta, and bread can all act as the binder.

Standing alone, each of the casserole ingredients may not be particularly impressive, but once melded, melted and baked these all in one meals end up being more than the sum of their parts.

A simple salad or fresh fruit can round out the meal.

Some folks refer to their casseroles as “dump and mix” dishes or “Granny recipes.”

If you think about it, a lasagna is a casserole. A more elaborate casserole, but still a casserole by definition. Other types of international casseroles are ragouts, hotpots, cassoulet, tajine, moussaka, shepherds pie, gratin’s and carbonnade.

In 1866, a French Canadian immigrant Elmire Jolicoeur, living in Berlin, New Hampshire, was credited as being the inventor of what we today call the casserole.

Early casseroles consisted mostly of rice, and inexpensive cuts of meats, or sweetmeats. Cooking in earthenware containers was standard in many countries. The popularity of casseroles in the U.S. began in the 1950s.

If you make an overabundance of a terrific vegetable soup and have some days old crusty bread you can create a savory ribollita. Soup becomes a casserole.

Left over spiral cut ham is the key ingredient to one of my favorite creations. Hams are served for so many holidays, but once you enjoy and have finished off the great ham sandwiches there were still all these great little bits of meat stuck to the bone. Shave them off, chop them up and you can make a really flavorful casserole. I never did come up with a great name for this recipe. Just call it my “Leftover Ham Casserole”. Somebody along the way fancied up the title and told me they called it “Holiday Ham Casserole”. Whatever you call it, it’s a true comfort food casserole according to my family.

Warm, comforting and aromatic, I think casseroles are the perfect choice on a cold winter night.

Mangia bene the easy way.

Leftover Ham Casserole

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 cup chopped yellow bell pepper

3/4 cup chopped green bell pepper

3/4 cup uncooked white rice1/2 tsp. pepper

1 tsp. salt

1 lb. 12 oz. can crushed tomatoes (including juice)

2 1/2 cups ham - chopped into small bites

1 12 oz. can pitted black olive, cut in half

1 small Bay leaf

Mix ingredients together in large bowl. Pour into treated casserole dish. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hr. 15 min. Remove Bay leaf and serve.

Serves 8

Ribollita

Serves 10

8 cups vegetable soup (with or without meat)

1 loaf days old crusty Italian bread

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1 clove garlic cut in half

Salt and pepper to taste

1 medium red onion - thinly sliced

Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese - optional

Slice bread into 12 slices. Rub each slice with garlic. Butter or spray a large baking pan. Lay half of bread slices across the bottom of baking pan, covering bottom.

Add half of soup evenly, another layer of bread, remainder of soup. Lay onion slices across the top. Add salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle generously with olive oil. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, if desired.

Telli’s Casserole

Serves 6-8

1 1/2 lbs. lean ground beef

1 1/2 lbs. carrots, peeled and sliced in 1/2 inch thick

1 medium onion, sliced 1/2 inch thick

6 medium potatoes, peeled and slice 1/2 inch thick

1 cup sliced mushrooms

2 cans cream mushroom soup

Salt and pepper to taste

Press ground beef firmly into bottom of treated 3-quart casserole dish. Layer ingredients in order shown above. Do not mix them together. Cover and bake for two hours at 350 degrees.

Diane De Filipi lives in the Napa Valley and leads cooking tours to Italy and Burgundy, France. Visit www.letsgocookitalian.com or www.ila-chateau.com/cook-italian for more information.

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