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Casseroles reached their height of popularity in the 50s and 60s as the nuclear family emerged and convenience took the forefront in many areas, including the home kitchen. Traditionally cooked in deep, ovenproof dishes, casseroles can be a one-pot meal, side dish, or dessert and you can conveniently prepare them hours ahead of time and bake them right before serving. Whether you opt for a traditional lasagna or tuna casserole for dinner or decide to serve casseroles side dishes such as green bean casserole or macaroni and cheese, or bake a dessert casserole, having a myriad of textures and tastes in one dish is sure to please your dinner guests and have them asking for seconds.
Traditional Main Dish Casseroles
Main dish casseroles typically include a protein such as meat, poultry, or fish, a starchy binder like pasta, rice, or flour, and chopped vegetables. The natural juices of the protein keep the casserole moist or you can add other liquids such as broth or gravy. Buttered breadcrumbs or shredded cheese are popular casserole toppings.
Besides lasagna and tuna casserole, there are other favorite family casserole recipes passed down through generations that conjure up warm memories of family suppers. Tamale pie replicates the taste of labor-intensive tamales by layering cornbread batter, cheese, diced green chilies, ground beef, and a tasty sauce flavored with Mexican spices in a casserole dish and baking it until the top cheese crust is bubbling. Chicken and rice mixed with peas and carrots, bound with sauce or canned soup, and topped with a crunchy bread or chopped nut topping makes a hearty main dish casserole. Make a satisfying chicken or turkey pot pie casserole with chunks of cooked carrots, potatoes, and onions smothered with cream gravy and topped with raw canned biscuits or homemade biscuit dough.
Turkey or chicken tetrazzini is a great way to turn leftover chicken into a luscious casserole meal with strand pasta, fresh mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, and a hint of sherry. Baked ziti, an Italian staple, combines ziti or penne pasta, a rich, red wine infused tomato sauce, ricotta and mozzarella cheese in deep dish topped with freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, a mélange that tastes better the day after its made after the flavors have a chance to marry and intensify. Macaroni and cheese is easily upgraded to a main dish by adding chunks of ham, cooked chicken breast, or smoked sausage. Adding a cup of drained diced canned tomatoes adds flavor, texture, and color to macaroni and cheese casseroles.
Deep Dish Vegetable Ideas
Almost any vegetable can be converted into a side dish casserole. Spread mashed potatoes in a casserole dish and top them with handfuls of shredded cheddar. As you slowly bake the casserole, the cheese will infuse the potatoes and create a crust on top. Green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale layered with cheese and cream and topped with toasted nuts are good companions for almost any meat or poultry entrée.
Corn casserole, also called corn pudding, is a mixture of canned and creamed corn, eggs, milk, butter, and corn muffin mix that can be spiced up with a handful of cheddar cheese, a can of chopped green chiles, or both. Broccoli or cauliflower makes a good casserole side dish layered with cheese sauce and sautéed onions and baked to tenderness.
The most famous sweet casserole is sweet potato casserole, traditionally served at Thanksgiving dinner. Some cooks push sweetness to the limit with marshmallow topping while others tone it down and use honey or brown sugar instead. For a mildly sweet version, mash cooked sweet potatoes and season with a little honey or brown sugar, butter, salt and pepper and bake them in a casserole dish until they slightly caramelize on top. Serve alongside ham, roast pork or a sage bread dressing or sage stuffing to highlight the natural sweetness of the vegetables.
You can turn fruit into casseroles to accompany savory lunch and dinner dishes or make cobblers, well-liked dessert casseroles that bind fruit together with sugar and encase it in a pastry or cake-like crust. Good side dish sweet casseroles pair apples with cranberries or cheese, as well as apples and sweet potatoes. Cobblers are best when made with fresh fruit picked at its peak of ripeness or frozen fruit, all of which have different levels of sweetness that require adjusting sugar levels in the recipe.
Tips and Techniques
Although casseroles are easy to make, following a few guidelines will guarantee success every time.
- Use the right size dish. If the dish is too small and the ingredients are crowded, it will overflow onto the oven floor. Using a dish that is too big results in a dry casserole.
- Cut all the ingredients the same size to ensure even cooking.
- Partially precook raw ingredients such as carrots, onions, and potatoes before adding to casseroles as they typically don’t cook through before the rest of the ingredients are done.
- Generously spray the insides of casserole dishes with cooking spray for easy serving and clean up.
- To get a good crisp topping, remove the lid from casserole dishes during the last 15 minutes of baking.