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Category Archives: Casseroles and Comfort Foods

The Role of Casseroles

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We have a fairly serious issue regarding casseroles on Forest Street. Some are greeted with wild enthusiasm rivaling a Baptist church on Easter morning. These include lasagna, macaroni and cheese, cassoulet and pastitsio. Others, the boys would eat, but I will not. This group includes tuna noodle casserole, and anything involving Campbell’s Cream of Anything and/or Velveeta. In the gray area, is anything bland, mushy and anonymous. Many casseroles turn out to be in this category, although a quick read through the recipe might lead you to believe that there would be texture, flavor or identifiable protein. The problem is that casseroles, by definition, require at least one liquid as a binder, and that makes it difficult to maintain the texture of any ingredients that start life with a little crunch. There are ways to infuse a little crunch into a casserole, but Mr. Annie dislikes water chestnuts, and don’t talk to me about crumbled potato chips, fried onions, or those Chinese noodles that come in a can.

The casserole I am about to present to you was, originally, dangerously close to the mushy and bland category, but was redeemed by the miracle that is Rooster Sauce.  In it’s original form, the recipe called for taco sauce, a substance I have always found to be sort of bitter and strange. I have also never seen it in a real Mexican restaurant, although I probably just ignore it in my search for real hot sauce. I made this recipe ages ago and my audience was less than dazzled. This time, I replaced the taco sauce with Rooster Sauce, which is really not Mexican at all…but then neither is this casserole, by any stretch of the imagination. With this substitution, I can recommend this as a meal that is (while not particularly high-toned or authentic) spicy, tasty, thrifty and easy. The recipe is going in the Permitted Casserole Hall of Fame, having risen from the depths of Mushy and Bland.

Burrito Pie

(Adapted from allrecipes.com)

Serves 8 moderately hungry people, or 4 hungry people.

INGREDIENTS

* 1 pound lean ground beef (or Chorizo, if you like)
* 1/2 onion, chopped
* 1 teaspoon minced garlic
*  1 (2 ounce) can sliced black olives, drained
* 1  (4 ounce) can diced green chili peppers, drained
* 1 (10 ounce) can diced tomatoes with green chile peppers
* 1/2 cup Rooster Sauce (Note: if you don’t like really hot food, you can use half Rooster Sauce and half water)
* 1 (16 ounce) can refried beans (I use the vegetarian kind)
* 6 (8 inch) flour tortillas (or more, if needed)
* 8 ounces shredded Monterey Jack cheese

DIRECTIONS

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
2. In a large skillet over medium heat, saute the ground beef for 5 minutes. Add the onion and garlic, and saute for 5 more minutes. Drain any excess fat, if desired. Mix in the olives, green chile peppers, tomatoes with green chile peppers, Rooster Sauce and refried beans. Stir mixture thoroughly, reduce heat to low, and let simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Spread a thin layer of the meat mixture in the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish. Cover with a layer of tortillas followed by more meat mixture, then a layer of cheese. Repeat tortilla, meat, cheese pattern until all the tortillas are used, topping off with a layer of meat mixture and cheese.
4. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes in the preheated oven, or until cheese is slightly brown and bubbly.

Just Because I Love You…

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In the past two days, my son found out that he needed to have 6 teeth extracted as part of an ongoing orthodontia project, and a friend who I dearly love learned that his employment contract would not be renewed for next year. In both cases, I feel tremendous empathy, a desire to smite the wrongdoers (orthodontists and bosses) and a need to FIX these people that I love, and restore them to their pre-trauma glory. Since I can’t really right either situation, and there are limits to the helpfulness of saying “I’m sorry; it will be okay” 500 times a day, I made another plan. I’m making soup. Even if neither of my traumatized loved ones ever eats a bite (although I hope that they will) I am putting such support, encouragement and positive energy into this soup that its mere presence in the universe will begin the healing process.

It happens (I believe due to an act of God) that last night’s dinner was a roasted chicken, rice, and carrots. At the moment, I am making stock from the chicken carcass, using Michael Ruhlman’s method from The Elements of Cooking, which involves cooking the carcass and water over very low heat (not even a simmer) for about 3 hours, skimming frequently and adding aromatics (bay leaf, peppercorn, celery, carrots and onion) only in the last hour. I will then strain it, adjust seasonings, and be ready for the next step.

To this clear, flavorful broth I will add small bits of only the tenderest bits of white meat chicken, with any hint of gristle, vein or skin removed. (If you are curing someone of heartache and fear, you make sure they get the best bites imaginable, every single time). I will also add maybe two cups of cooked rice, and the leftover cooked carrots cut into coins. I’ll taste the soup again, heat it gently to warm all the ingredients (too high would toughen the chicken and turn the rice and carrots to mush) and ladle out full bowls for all available fallen warriors. I can’t fix everything, but I can’t think of a better way to express what’s in my full and sympathetic heart than to pour it into a pot of homemade soup.

P.S. If, like me, you believe in the transference of emotions through cooking (and you are open to a little magical realism) you may want to read Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel.

Random Dinner Snapshot: Homemade Macaroni and Cheese

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Here it is, tonight’s dinner. Its cold outside, I’m busy, and this is in our dinner hall of fame.

I have posted the recipe before, here.  It isn’t sophisticated, it isn’t elegant, and (based on previous experiments) this family will not allow deviations into wild territory like smoked cheese or panko instead of Italian breadcrumbs. Take it, make it your own, and consider it a gift from the depths of my soul.

Guinness Braised Chuck Steaks with Mashed Potatoes: A Winter Dinner

“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”

-William Blake

 

I do enjoy winter. Aside from the holidays, which can be as stressful and maddening as they are glorious, there is a natural exaggeration of the contrast between “outside” and “inside,” between the biting cold and isolation of a Michigan winter and the warmth and community to be found at home. There are very few experiences I prefer to that of coming into a warm house after spending time outside shovelling, sledding or taking a walk with the dogs; my body naturally melts into the ambient warmth, and (with a little luck) there can be hot chocolate or a cup of tea in my immediate future.

Its good to come in from the cold, but I can ratchet my pleasure level even higher if there is something delicious in the oven, scenting the house and promising good things to come. Winter is not about the quick, refreshing fruits and vegetable of spring and summer which often require just a knife and maybe a little kosher salt. Winter is a time for the slow, deep flavors that come from long cooking of root vegetables and cuts of meat too tough and complicated to be thrown on the grill. It is a perfect time for braising and stewing, which let you begin with tough (but flavorful) protein and thick, starchy vegetables and end with tender meat and vegetables as well as sauce or gravy infused with the flavors and scents of meat, vegetables, and the aromatics of your choosing.

The main elements of a braise are the searing of the meat to insure beautiful color and to seal in flavor, and the long, slow cooking to break down connective tissue and make the meat silky. As an added bonus, most meats suitable for a braise are inexpensive because they are tougher and less “convenient;” think chuck roast, stew meat and bone-in chicken rather than lean fillets and boneless, skinless breasts.

One of my favorites is this recipe for Guinness-Braised Chuck Steaks with Horseradish Potatoes from the October 2005 issue of “Cooking Light” magazine. I’ve adapted the recipe to make it a little more kid-friendly (no horseradish in the mashed potatoes, alas, and no mushrooms in the sauce) but I’ll give you both my version and a link to the original so you can choose for yourself. Here’s the original. Here’s mine:

Guinness-Braised Chuck Steaks with Mashed Potatoes

(Adapted from “Cooking Light” Magazine)

For the steak:

  1. 1 1/2 pounds boneless chuck steak, trimmed
  2. 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  3. 2 teaspoons olive oil
  4. 1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion
  5. 1/2 cup chopped carrot
  6. 1/2 cup chicken broth (homemade, if you have it)
  7. 1 teaspoon dark brown sugar
  8. 1 teaspoon chopped, fresh rosemary
  9. 1 8 ounce package pre-sliced mushrooms (I leave these out)
  10. 1 garlic clove, minced
  11. 2 bay leaves
  12. 1 (12 ounce bottle) Guinness Stout

For the Potatoes:

  1. 2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and quartered (I like Yukon Gold)
  2. 2 tablespoons butter
  3. 1/2 cup skim milk
  4. 1/4 cup finely chopped green onions
  5. 1/4 cup reduced fat sour cream
  6. 2 tablespoons horseradish (I leave this out of the dish until the end, and stir some into the adult portion)
  7. 1/2 teaspoon salt
  8. 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Sprinkle steak with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a Dutch Oven over medium-high heat. Add steak, cook 5 minutes per side, or until browned. Remove steak from pan, and add onions, carrot, 2 tablespoons of broth and brown sugar. Cover, lower heat and cook 10 minutes. Add bay leaves, stout, remaining broth and steak and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer 1 hour and 30 minutes or until steak is tender. (Note: this is not an exact science; start testing the meat for tenderness at 90 minutes, but depending on the piece of meat, it may take longer).

To prepare potatoes, place them in a saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer 20 minutes, or until potatoes are tender. Drain potatoes and return to pan; add butter and beat with a mixer until smooth. Stir in remaining ingredients and keep warm.

Remove steak from pan and keep warm. (I put it on a platter tented with foil). Discard bay leaves. Increase heat to medium high and cook five minutes or until slightly thickened. Slice steak, spoon sauce over it and serve with potatoes.

Macaroni and Cheese: My Way, or the Highway

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My mother recently saved me a “New York Times” article about macaroni and cheese. I was a bit skeptical about the writer’s claim that, in her search for the perfect mac & cheese recipe she had been baffled by references to white sauce (what food writer never heard of white sauce?!) and I was incensed to read that many writers of recipes believed that macaroni and cheese made with a cheese-enriched white sauce was disgusting, and that “good” macaroni was made by layering pieces of cheese in a dish with pasta, and baking it.

Some of the “Times’” recipes, in a truly appalling twist, call for the inclusion of minced onions, which have NO place in macaroni and cheese. I have only a few orthodoxies in my life, which include no jewelry on men and no facial glitter during daylight hours, but I would have to add to my list the pristine, un-spiced, un-onioned purity of macaroni and cheese. The anti-white sauce camp apparently recognizes that their barbaric layering method leaves nothing more than a dish full of oily, stringy cheese that slips off of the noodles, so they resort to the heavy use of Processed Cheese Food because it melts smoothly and doesn’t separate like, well, actual cheese.

Since you have probably been dying to know, here is my recipe for macaroni and cheese. It originally hails from the back of the Mueller’s shell box, although I “invented” the crumb topping.

Mueller’s Box Mac and Cheese My Way

  1. 1.16 oz box pasta (I like shells, radiatore, penne, or rigatoni; you need something with holes to hold the sauce)
  2. 2 tablespoons butter or margarine
  3. 1/4 cup flour
  4. 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
  5. 2 1/2 cups milk (I use skim, because its what’s in the house; if I’m making this for company or to take to someone I use 2%)
  6. 2 cups cheese (although I always double it)
  7. Parmesan Cheese, shredded or grated
  8. Italian bread crumbs
  9. Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375. Grease a 9×13 pan or a 2 quart casserole dish, either works fine. Boil water for pasta, and cook following label directions. I usually wait until the water boils and then make the cheese sauce while the pasta cooks).

In a large saucepan, melt butter or margarine. Whisk in flour, mustard, salt and pepper. Over medium heat, whisk in milk gradually, and stir constantly until thickened. If you aren’t sure if its thickened yet; its not. Be patient.

When milk mixture is thickened, remove from heat and stir in cheese until completely melted. Pour drained pasta into baking dish, add cheese sauce, and mix gently. Smooth top with the back of a spoon or a spatula, then sprinkle on a thin layer of Parmesan followed by a thin layer of bread crumbs. Bake for 25 minutes.

This macaroni and cheese comes out thick, cheesy and delicious with a crispy crust that is fought over in both my family of origin and my current family. The next time I make it, I’ll take a picture and add it to this post. The dish is very hearty, and needs nothing more than a salad or a cooked green vegetable to complete the meal. Leftovers are divine, although we rarely see any; this macaroni and cheese is so valuable a commodity in my family that when leftovers exist they are sometimes delivered to other family members at their local households like Tupperware full of frankincense and myrrh. Its that good.

As for other macaroni and cheese, it is simply wrong. There is real gold, and there is that Black Hills stuff they sell on the Home Shopping Network; macaroni made any other way is inauthentic. I have no problem with a change of cheese, and in fact I have experimented widely with the flavors of Swiss, Manchego (delicious but incredibly expensive), Gouda and Emmentaler, all pretty successfully. I have also used 2% cheese, which is okay. I don’t object to changes in the crumb topping, or even to its omission, although I can’t imagine doing such a thing intentionally. As for the stuff in the blue box, I’ll admit that I sometimes eat it with the kids, and I like it. It is, however, in a category completely separate from actual macaroni made with actual cheese.

Am I a macaroni extremist? Perhaps. I can only say that I know I am right about jewelry on men, and glitter in daylight, and I’m guessing I’m probably right about the macaroni, too.

Another Thursday, Another Menu…

Its Thursday again, and I’m planning menus for next Sunday through Saturday. As always, I’m trying for no more than one or two red-meat meals, at least one veggie meal, and to make good use of summer’s opportunities for fresh produce and grilling. I’m also working with a fairly tight budget, which rules out, say, buying 4-packs of Porterhouse steaks.

I am relying very heavily this week on recipes from the June issue of “Bon Appetit” magazine. I am terrified to copy recipes, because of copyright issues, but I can’t link to the recipes because they don’t exist on-line, and I can’t tell you to buy your own copy because its no longer available for sale. Maybe I’ll just give you a couple, and if the blog disappears you’ll know I’m in Infringer’s Prison….

Here’s what’s cooking this week on Forest Street:

Sunday

Shepard’s Pie; Green salad with Vinaigrette.

I know how to make a proper Shepard’s Pie, but Sam doesn’t like meatloaf, and the meat layer of the genuine article is too meatloaf-like for him. My “recipe,” such as it is, is to layer the following things in a 9×13 pan in the following order: a pound of browned ground beef, two cans of corn, drained, enough mashed potatoes to cover, and a 2 cup package of shredded sharp cheddar. I then bake at 350 until the cheese is melted. Sometimes I use leftover mashed potatoes, and sometimes, if they are on sale, I will break all of my own rules and buy Bob Evans’ packaged and frozen mashed potatoes which are pretty darned good.

Monday

Sweet and Sour Chicken Kabobs; Rice

I have a bag of frozen chicken tenders in my freezer because they were “buy one get one free” last week. I’m going to buy sweet onions, green peppers, and some sweet and sour marinade/sauce (or something Hawaiian). I’ll cut the chicken into chunks and marinate it overnight in half the sauce/marinade, then cut the onion and pepper into chunks, thread chicken, pepper and onion onto pre-soaked wood skewers, and let Rob grill them and brush more sauce onto them while I make rice.

Tuesday

Linguine with Spicy Leeks & Tomato Sauce; Garlic Bread; Green Salad

This is our veggie meal, and also a relatively inexpensive one. Since I’ve never made it before, I’m going to wait until Tuesday to share pics and the recipe (a “Bon Appetit” appropriation) if it turns out that we love it.

Wednesday

Family Fourth of July! My contributions: Potato Salad, Biscuits and Icebox Cake.

I like my potato salad very simple, and I make it just like my mom does. Nothing but diced, boiled potatoes, diced red pepper, green onion and mayonnaise. Maybe a little salt and pepper.

I will make the “Quick Biscuits I always make, which involve nothing more complicated than self-rising flour and heavy cream. Yum!

The Icebox Cake is a family tradition, and after I make it on Wednesday I’ll add a picture. Here’s how to make it:

Banana Icebox Cake

(Plan ahead; this should chill overnight)

  1. 1 bunch bananas (you’ll need at least eight)
  2. 1 box Vanilla Wafers (I use Nilla Wafers. This is also spectacular with chocolate wafer cookies, if you can find them)
  3. 6 cups whipping cream
  4. Powdered Sugar

In a chilled bowl, with chilled beaters, whip cream until it is, well, whipped cream (the cream should form points when you pull the beaters up and out). Fold in powdered sugar until it is very lightly sweetened. Don’t even think about using Reddi Whip or Cool Whip. I have learned through bitter experience that both are bad choices.

Peel at least 7 bananas and slice into rounds maybe 1/4 on an inch thick. You may need one more later, but wait and see.

In the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish, place a layer of cookies. There will be some spaces and holes, but you don’t need to fill them. Its better to have spaces than to crows the cookies. On top of this, spread a layer of whipped cream, and then add a layer of sliced bananas. Follow with another layer of cookies, another layer of bananas and another layer of whipped cream. Crush any cookies left in the bag and sprinkle the cookie crumbs across the top, cover with plastic wrap or foil, and chill overnight. When its time to eat, the cookies will have soaked up the whipped cream and turned, magically into cake.

Thursday

Stacked Chicken Enchiladas with Salsa Verde & Cheese; Pickled Red Onions

Another “Bon Appetit” recipe that will use up the remainder of the chicken tenders – I’ll poach them in the crockpot, and have them ready to shred. Again, I’ll wait until I’ve actually made this to see if its worth photographing and sharing.

Friday

Grilled Chicken Thighs; Sticky Rice; Quick & Spicy Asian Pickles

All from June’s “Bon Appetit.” This week, bags of frozen boneless, skinless thighs are on sale, so I’ll use a bag for this and have a spare for next week. If we love it, you’ll get a picture and a recipe. Unless I’m already in litigation after posting Tuesday’s linguine recipe.

Saturday

Breakfast Dinner: Eggs to Order; Bacon; Frozen Belgian Waffles with Butter and Syrup

What more can I say?

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