To many, the word casserole conjures up church basements and Pyrex pans filled with bland blends of mushy noodles, cream soups, mayonnaise, sour cream and cheese.

But why? “Casserole” is a broad term that applies to any food baked and served in the same dish. As such, it describes not only the bourgeois recipes printed on soup cans but also culinary sophisticates such as cassoulet and tagine.

In America, casseroles got a big push when women started working after the war. Manufacturers of canned foods published recipes that emphasized the convenience of one-pot cooking and can openers.

“That’s how casseroles started out with a not-so-good pedigree,” says Sylvia Lovegren, author of “Fabulous Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads” (Macmillan, 1995). “Advertisers kept coming up with weird recipes. If you connected your tongue and your brain, there were combinations you would never do.”

“We think casseroles are things people dump all this stuff in and didn’t work that hard on,” says Susan Mills-Gray, nutrition and health specialist for University of Missouri Extension.

But maybe it’s time to change that perception. In 2008, casseroles deserve a place in the home cook’s repertoire. Not only are they the ultimate comfort food, browned and bubbling on a cold winter’s evening, but they also are economical, stretching meat with the addition of pasta or rice. They can be prepared in advance and freeze nicely. A typical 9- by 13-inch pan usually makes enough for two meals, and leftovers are easy to reheat in the microwave.

One rap against casseroles over the years has been their artery-clogging combinations of hamburger, sour cream, eggs and cheese – lots of cheese. But with a few tweaks, casseroles can be part of a healthy diet.

Reducing is the first line of defense. For example, the amount of butter in a recipe can be cut by one-fourth with no discernible difference in taste, Mills-Gray says.

And if a casserole recipe calls for salt, it can always be omitted.

Second, learn to substitute for the high-fat, high-sodium offenders. Casseroles are a forgiving bunch. When low-fat or low-sodium substitutes are mixed in among the other ingredients, “No one can tell the difference unless you tell them ahead of time and put that thought in their mind,” says Shelly Summar, weight management program coordinator at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.

Among the suitable substitutes:

Meat. Summar recommends using meat that is at least 90 percent lean. When cooking with turkey, look for packages labeled “breast.” Ground turkey that isn’t breast meat may contain skin and dark meat with more fat and calories, she says.

Soy vegetable crumbles (look in the supermarket freezer case) can stand in for ground beef in any casserole recipe.

Starches. You can triple the fiber in a casserole by using whole-wheat pasta in place of egg noodles. “They’re great – not sticky, gummy pasta like they used to be,” Summar says. Use more fibrous brown rice in place of white rice.

If family members, particularly children, have issues with the darker-hued whole-grain noodles or rice, start by substituting whole-grain for one-fourth of the regular noodles. Then increase the proportion each time you make the casserole, Summar says.

Vegetables. Colorful vegetables not only boost the nutrition of casseroles but also add visual interest to the typically beige dishes.

Cooks can usually get away with including 50 percent more vegetables than a recipe calls for, says Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a registered dietitian and faculty member in the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

If a recipe doesn’t call for vegetables, add some. Tough veggies like broccoli and carrots may need to be precooked (cut them in uniform chunks), while corn and peas can be folded into the casserole right before baking.

If you want to be really sneaky, mix in baby food. Two 4-ounce jars of pureed carrots, green beans, squash or sweet potatoes disappear easily into a 9- by 13-inch casserole, Summar says. Baby food adds fiber and vitamins without any lumps that may raise suspicions among young eaters.

Sauces. Without a sauce to bind everything together, casseroles would be dry indeed. Sauce mainstays include cheese and other dairy products, as well as canned cream soups.

Light or reduced-fat sour cream, mayonnaise, milk, cheese and canned soup can be substituted for full-fat products with little difference in taste or texture.

Be careful using fat-free products, however. Fat-free cheese does not melt well, and fat-free sour cream or skim milk might turn a casserole watery, Havala Hobbs says.

Another option is to use a full-fat product with a more assertive flavor, but less of it. For example, instead of 2 cups regular cheddar cheese, substitute 1½ cups sharp cheddar, which has more flavor, Mills-Gray says.

No canned soups were harmed in the writing of “The Big Book of Casseroles” (Chronicle, 2000), says author Maryana Vollstedt of Eugene, Ore. Her recipes substitute a low-fat, easy-to-make white sauce that can be seasoned any which way and that tastes fresher than canned soup.

“The caveat on all of this is that you need to experiment to see what works,” Havala Hobbs says. “You can’t change the proportions of ingredients too much without quality suffering at some point.”

Some standard measurements:

A pan 8 by 8 inches makes 1½ quarts and 4 to 6 servings

A pan 7 by 11 inches makes 2 quarts and 6 to 8 servings

A pan 9 by 13 inches makes 3 quarts or 8 to 12 servings

Jazz it up with substitutions

One criticism of casseroles is that their flavors tend to be unadventuresome. To jazz up a family favorite:

For processed or mild cheddar cheese, substitute smoked Gouda or other more flavorful cheese.

For plain egg noodles, substitute tricolor pasta wheels or fun squiggly shapes.

For vegetables, use wild mushrooms instead of canned button mushrooms and edamame instead of peas.

For a flavor boost, try red pepper sauce; lemon or yuzu juice; wine or sherry; or ethnic flavorings such as curry, hoisin sauce and feta cheese.

For the cracker-crumb topping, substitute finely chopped nuts, wheat germ, sunflower seeds or vinegar-flavored potato chips.

Tips from cooks

Slightly undercook pasta for casseroles. Noodles will continue to cook in the oven.

When making recipes ahead, store casserole fillings and sauces separately.

Bring prepared casserole to room temperature before baking.

Allow casserole to cool a few minutes before serving. This allows flavors to meld and the layers to bind together.

To free up casserole dishes for other uses, line the dish with heavy-duty aluminum foil and spray with cooking spray. Assemble casserole in pan and freeze as directed. Once frozen, use foil to lift out casserole and wrap tightly. When it’s time to serve, put casserole back in the dish and follow recipe directions for thawing and cooking.

Sources: “America’s Test Kitchen,” Cooking Light

Beyond Pyrex

Just about any oven proof, food-safe dish – oval, round, rectangular, square – will work as a casserole. Since the baking dish doubles as a serving dish, choose one in a bright color or fun vintage pattern.

It’s sometimes hard to know whether unusually shaped dishes will fit your recipe. Here’s a tip: Cup by cup, fill your dish to the top. Divide the number of cups by 4 to find out the dish’s volume in quarts.

Source: “The Dinner Doctor” (Workman) by Anne Byrn

Healthier tater tot casserole

Ingredients:

1 medium onion, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced

1 large red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

3 medium carrots, peeled and chopped

3/4 cup sliced mushrooms

1 pound extra-lean ground turkey

¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1½ tablespoons onion powder

1 tablespoon paprika

1 (2-pound) bag frozen tater tots

2 (10.5-ounce) cans low-sodium cream of mushroom soup

Method:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large skillet over medium heat, cook onion in olive oil until translucent. Add garlic, red pepper, carrots and mushrooms and cook until soft. Add turkey, parsley, onion powder and paprika and cook until turkey is browned and fully cooked. Place meat mixture in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

In a large bowl, combine frozen tater tots and soup. Top casserole with the potato mixture. If desired, sprinkle with extra parsley and paprika. Bake 55 to 60 minutes. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Per serving (based on 8): 283 calories (36 percent calories from fat), 11 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 28 milligrams cholesterol, 33 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams protein, 471 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

– healthycooking.suite101.com

Lighter than Mom’s tuna-noodle casserole

Ingredients:

¼ cup dry white wine

4 teaspoons cornstarch

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1½ cups low-fat (1 percent) milk

1 cup canned low-sodium chicken broth

2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried

2 tablespoons Neufchatel cheese (reduced-fat cream cheese)

1 (6-ounce) can solid white tuna packed in water, undrained

1 (6-ounce) can chunk light tuna packed in water, undrained

1 cup frozen petite peas

Salt and pepper, to taste

8 ounces farfalle (bow-tie) pasta

½ cup crushed baked potato chips

Method:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray 8-by-8 inch glass baking dish with vegetable cooking spray. Whisk wine and cornstarch in small bowl to blend; set aside. Put flour in heavy medium saucepan; gradually add milk to flour, whisking until smooth. Add broth and thyme and whisk over medium heat until liquid thickens and boils, about 4 minutes.

Add cornstarch mixture and whisk until liquid boils and is smooth, about 1 minute. Remove from heat. Add Neufchatel cheese and whisk until melted. Stir in both cans of tuna with their liquid and frozen peas. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain pasta and return to pot. Add tuna mixture to pasta; stir to blend well.

Transfer to prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with potato chips. Bake until top is golden and sauce bubbles around edges of dish, about 25 minutes. Makes 6 servings.

Per serving: 381 calories (8 percent calories from fat), 3 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 21 milligrams cholesterol, 57 grams carbohydrates, 28 grams protein, 461 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

– epicurious.com

Broccoli and rice casserole

Ingredients:

1 egg

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

2 cups low-fat cottage cheese

3 cups cooked brown rice

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

½ teaspoon thyme

4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, divided

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

1½ cups chopped onion

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped broccoli, thawed and drained

8 ounces fresh mushrooms, sliced

2 tablespoons sunflower seeds

Method:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with vegetable cooking spray. In a bowl, mix egg, flour, cottage cheese, rice, pepper, thyme and 1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese. Set aside.

Heat butter or margarine in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion and saute until translucent. Add garlic and saute 1 minute. Add broccoli and mushrooms. Cover and cook 7 minutes. Add cottage cheese mixture and blend well.

Spoon mixture into prepared pan. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons Parmesan and sunflower seeds on top. Bake 25 to 30 minutes. Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 215 calories (28 percent calories from fat), 7 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 39 milligrams cholesterol, 26 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams protein, 326 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

– Adapted from American Heart Association Cookbook (Random House)

Cheese enchilada casserole

Ingredients:

1 cup (4 ounces) shredded reduced-fat extra-sharp cheddar cheese

1 cup chopped tomato

1 cup fat-free cottage cheese

1/3 cup sliced green onions

2 teaspoons chili powder

2 garlic cloves, minced

9 (6-inch) corn tortillas

1 cup taco sauce

¼ cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese

Method:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine cheddar cheese, tomato, cottage cheese, green onions, chili powder and garlic in a medium bowl. Arrange 3 tortillas in bottom of an 11-by-7-inch baking dish coated with vegetable cooking spray. Spread half of cheese mixture over tortillas. Repeat procedure with 3 tortillas and remaining cheese mixture; top with remaining tortillas. Pour taco sauce over tortillas; sprinkle with Monterey Jack cheese. Bake 20 minutes or until cheese melts. Makes 4 servings

Per serving: 295 calories (22 percent calories from fat), 7 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 15 milligrams cholesterol, 37 grams carbohydrates, 21 grams protein, 726 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.

– Cooking Light

Basic white sauce

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

1 cup milk

Method:

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Add flour, salt and pepper, stirring constantly, until bubbly. Stir in milk. Heat to boiling, stirring or whisking constantly until thickened, about 1 minute. Use in place of condensed cream soup in casserole recipe. Makes about 1 cup.

Per serving (using skim milk): 87 calories (61 percent from fat), 6 grams total fat (4 grams saturated), 17 milligrams cholesterol, 6 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 222 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


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