The 1970s ushered in the era of convenience foods – think “Hamburger Helper” and taco-making kits (“Just add your own ground beef!”). It was also the heyday of the casserole – a dish with a wide (and forgiving) interpretation involving the combination of protein, fat, and starch in a rectangular baking dish (funnily enough, called a “casserole.”) Usually held together with noodles of some sort, a 1970s casserole was an assembly-line-ingredient affair that often started with canned tuna, cubed chicken, ground beef, or leftover seafood, then some canned veggies (Veg-All!), followed by a can of creamed soup (celery was big, but so was cream of mushroom) and possibly some shredded cheese to glue (emphasis on glue) it all together.
While they never really went away, I think a “Casserole Renaissance” is in order, but approached with more of a made-from-scratch attitude. Neither of these following two casserole dishes require canned soup – but since they’re casseroles – go ahead and experiment if you like. The basic principle is the same for both: Clean out your pantry and/or fridge, and toss the things you find into a rectangle baking dish. Add enough fat (cream is a favorite) and cheese, and sometimes eggs, and voila! – a crowd-pleasing meal for the family or to take to the next church gathering. Here are two casseroles to get you started on your own Casserole Renaissance.
Casserole 1 – Swineherd Pie
I had a friend in high school who joked about one of his uncles who apparently had developed a reputation for being late to everything. He was called, of course, “N’oncle Tard” (in Cajun, “mon oncle” is most often mashed together, resulting in “n’oncle,” pronounced, “nonk,” and “tard” means “late”). Well this N’oncle Tard was also a pig farmer, or a swineherd, and apparently a talented cook, who specialized in pork (what else?) dishes. These included spaghetti sauce, hamburgers, meatballs, stews, pot pies, and so on, but he always used pork in place of the more traditional meats in those dishes.
I don’t know if N’oncle Tard ever made a pork version of shepherd’s pie, but I thought of him the first time I made one – way back in college, when the ability to cook for myself and my roommates was a highly valued skill. I love the simple concept of shepherd’s pie: chopped vegetables, ground lamb, and a mashed-potato topping all baked in a casserole – and that’s pretty much what’s going on in the following recipe – except with ground pork. The idea of using pork over lamb has its appeal – lamb can be hard to get some times during the year, and is often quite expensive, while pork tends to be inexpensive and readily available year round. This pork version of shepherd’s pie should get everyone to show up for dinner on time. Even N’oncle Tard.
Olive oil for sautéing
1.5 pounds of ground pork
1 cup of chopped onion
1 head of garlic, minced
1.5 cups of diced carrots
8 ounces of mushrooms, chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
4 cups of my “Amazing, Three-Ingredient Mashed Potatoes” (recipe below)
3/4 cup of heavy or whipping cream
2 cups of seasoned bread cubes (for making stuffing)
1.5 tablespoons of Cajun seasoning (I make my own, but you can use Slap-ya-Mama or Tony Chachere’s, et. al.)
1 chicken-flavored bouillon cube, dissolved in a cup of hot water
1 – In a skillet brown the ground pork in 2 tablespoons of olive oil, until it’s crumbly; 6-7 minutes.
2 – Add the chopped onion and sauté until they acquire some color; make a space in the center of the pan and sauté the garlic about 30 seconds. Transfer the pork, onions and garlic to a dish.
3 – In the same skillet, add another tablespoon of olive oil and sauté the carrots for 3 minutes; add the mushrooms, and cook for another 3 minutes before adding the red bell pepper to cook for another minute.
4 – In a large (I used a 9” by 15” Pyrex) baking dish coated with no-stick spray or olive oil, combine the pork, sautéed vegetables, and seasonings (including the water for dissolving the bouillon cube) and cream.
5 – Fold in the seasoned stuffing cubes (can use store-bought or you can make your own by tossing cubed stale bread in olive oil, salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, and celery seeds and baking on a cookie sheet till browned and crunchy).
6 – Using a frosting spatula spread my Amazing, 3-ingredient Mashed Potatoes (recipe below) over everything.
7 – Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes, until the mashed potatoes are browned on top.
* Amazing, Three-Ingredient Mashed Potatoes – For me the most delicious mashed potatoes are also the simplest to make. No need to gussy up what should be a pure, heavenly dish that makes your eyes roll back in your head. No need for accessories (too much seasoning, roasted garlic, cheese!, and any number of other additives that have been attached to mashed potatoes over the more-is-better mentality of the last few decades.) My recipe has five ingredients (six if you count the water for boiling the potatoes; three if you don’t count salt and pepper) and I can assure you, these mashed potatoes will become your favorite way to make them. Save all the accessories for topping them, or do what I do: eat them just as they are, unadorned, for full-on mashed-potato bliss. Here’s how I make them: Combine 2 pounds of boiled, peeled russet potatoes and 1/4 pound (one stick) of unsalted butter that has been cut into cubes. Once the butter is fully melted, add 3/4 cup of whipping cream, then salt and black pepper to taste – NOTHING ELSE! Mix to the consistency you love (I like a few lumps in mine).
Casserole 2 – Chicken, Andouille, Mushroom, & Mirliton
Here’s a casserole I love because it features Andouille sausage and mirlitons, two of the stars of Cajun and Creole cooking. Also known as a vegetable pear or chayote, mirliton is a squash that, when raw, is similar in texture to a potato with a mild taste that easily takes on other flavors in a recipe. Once cooked, the vegetable contributes a smooth richness to the dish like cooked squash or potatoes.
1 pound of curly macaroni
1 cup of half and half
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups of shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese
Olive oil for sautéing
1/2 pound of Andouille (or kielbasa), diced
1 cup of chopped onion
4 cloves of minced garlic
8 ounces of diced mushrooms, sautéed
1 large red bell pepper, diced into quarter-inch cubes
1/2 pound of baked or roasted chicken, diced
3 cups of peeled and chopped mirliton (vegetable pear / chayote)
1 cup of seasoned bread cubes (the kind used for making stuffing)
1.5 tablespoons of Cajun seasoning
1 chicken-flavored bouillon cube, dissolved in a cup of hot water.
1 – Boil the pasta for 3 minutes less than instructed on the package, so it is not fully cooked – it will finish cooking in the oven. Drain and spread out in an olive oil coated 9” by 12” baking dish.
2 – While the pasta is boiling, in a mixing bowl, combine the half-and-half, beaten eggs, and cheeses; set aside.
3 – In a tablespoon of olive oil, brown the Andouille (or kielbasa if you can’t find Andouille), about 3 minutes.
4 – To that, add the onions and sauté them for 3 minutes; then the garlic for 1 minute; then the mushrooms for 3 minutes; and finally the bell pepper for 1 minute, then transfer it all to the baking dish.
5 – Add all of the remaining ingredients, including the seasonings, and mix well.
6 – Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes.
Variations: You can substitute penne for the macaroni, crawfish for the chicken; broccoli for the mirliton, and so on. You get to decide how inventive your casserole renaissance can be!
© All Rights Reserved. Check out my book, Stone Motel – Memoirs of a Cajun Boy, where I mention more food and how it played a part in our lives. These recipes are from my companion cookbook: “Fix Me A Plate!” Please FOLLOW me! (form is at the bottom of this page).