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Appealing casseroles without that cream-of-something soup

By Annmarie Timmins
For The Associated Press
Banish thoughts of potato sticks, limp green beans and cream-of-something soups. Casseroles finally are redeeming themselves.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, casseroles became synonymous with El Caminos, cheap beer and church basements,” says Emily Farris, author of the recent cookbook, “Casserole Crazy.”
That’s changing. A new generation of Americans focused on better and more exotic ingredients is giving new life to casseroles.
As evidenced by the recent spate of casserole-themed cookbooks, today’s recipes are jammed with fresh vegetables and bold flavors, such as cumin, sun-dried tomatoes, shrimp and fresh dill.
Even upscale food magazines such as Gourmet and Martha Stewart Living are making space for recipes, recently offering updated versions of shepherd’s pie with stewed root vegetables and potato casserole.
“If you make them with great ingredients, they are great and not dowdy at all,” says Pamela Mitchell, executive food editor at Every Day with Rachael Ray magazine, which has run more than a dozen casserole recipes during the past year.
The renewed appeal is fueled by several factors, including that casseroles are an economical way to stretch groceries, including leftovers. It also helps that more people are taking advantage of better ingredients to produce better casseroles, says Mitchell.
Casseroles first became popular during the ’50s, the heyday of processed foods ó such as canned soups ó that made it easier for cooks to be in and out of the kitchen quickly, says Mitchell.
The casserole was ideal because it required little more than mixing a few ingredients with a can of soup and an hour of baking. It also was an inexpensive way to stretch leftovers to feed the family.The good news is that it’s the ingredients, not the simplicity or value, that has changed.
Elizabeth Yarnell, author of this year’s “Glorious One-Pot Meals,” likes to create healthy casseroles. Using only fresh ingredients and spices, Yarnell turns out nutritious meals minus heavy sauces. And all in under an hour per recipe.
“Casseroles are full of processed foods,” she says. “I wanted to eat healthy, but I don’t like to cook. This lets me do both.”
Her Moroccan chicken, for example, calls for couscous, onions, mushrooms, sugar snap peas, spices and chicken, but nothing more processed than a can of tomato sauce.
Need more reasons to embrace the new face of casseroles? They are easy and forgiving. Nothing needs to rise, they are simple to assemble, they require no special cooking knowledge and are completely adaptable.
Here are some tips that will have you cooking up great ó and contemporary ó casseroles of your own.
– Use the right size baking dish. Your rice won’t cook properly if you use a deep, narrow dish instead of a shallow wider one. Err the other way, and your cheese dish will dry out before your pasta is cooked.
– Your casserole dishes aren’t marked with what size they are? To check the capacity, fill it with water one quart at a time.
– Don’t be afraid to use frozen ingredients in place of fresh ones, especially when it comes to vegetables. The quality and nutritional value are excellent. No need to defrost.- Most casseroles can be assembled the night or morning before. When Mitchell is cooking for a party, she’ll bake her casseroles a week or so ahead, then freeze them. Just before the party, she’ll thaw and warm them. Fish is the exception.
– Don’t forgo the special ingredients. Casseroles are an economical way to stretch ingredients such as shrimp or lobster for a crowd. Both can be pricey as a main dish, but with a casserole each guest needs only a few bites.
– Dress up your casserole by baking it in a pretty dish.
– Adjust recipes to your liking. If one cup of cheese seems indulgent, cut it in half. Want a thinner sauce? Add water.
– Understand the basic ratios of a good casserole. This helps you create your own and change others. Generally, a casserole for two people would have 1/2 to 3/4 pound of meat, 1/2 to 1 cup of starch, plus vegetables to taste. If you want to bind the ingredients, you’ll need more sauce, cream or stock than if you prefer a more layered meal.

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