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Rediscovering the love of casseroles

David Hagedorn

After a lifetime of ambivalence toward the casserole, I have reconsidered my position.

This holiday season has convinced me that when a surfeit of obligations comes up against a paucity of time, it's not such a bad thing to have a lamb-and-eggplant shepherd's pie in the freezer for relatives or unexpected guests.

To many, the all-American casserole evokes heartwarming comfort-food memories. But that is not my experience. My mother turned her nose up, literally, at the mention of the word; having made nothing but casseroles as a newlywed, she could not stand the thought of them once she "learned how to cook."

" 'Casserole,' " she liked to say, "is the French word for 'glop.' "

Despite our mother's interdiction, my siblings and I, children of divorce, were regularly exposed to casseroles during trips to visit our father in Alabama.

Our stepmother's repertoire included perennially popular concoctions: asparagus-pea, broccoli-rice, green bean-mushroom. Those offerings did not necessarily disprove our mother's assessment of casseroles, thanks mostly to the fact that their main ingredients, condensed soup and canned or frozen vegetables, shared exactly the same soft, unappetizing texture.

But along with the abundance of sodium of some of those ingredients, other taste-bud triggers made the casseroles hard to resist: fat of some sort; gooey or processed cheeses; sour cream; crunchy toppings such as crushed cornflakes, bread crumbs and frizzled onions; and sometimes the ultimate bet-hedger: bacon.

When I cooked professionally, my relationship with such ghastly amalgamations became more complicated. I accepted them as a guest but rejected them as a chef.

And so, as a supposed entertaining expert who has been caught off guard more than once in recent weeks (no time to go to the store; friends coming in an hour; fridge empty), I set out to devise some one-dish wonders of my own, minus cans of soup and other processed ingredients.

For the basic formula, I broke out the components of most one-dish meals (protein, vegetable, starch) and filled in the blanks. Along the way in my casserole adventure, I learned these tips:

• If you plan to freeze a casserole straight away, line the dish with aluminum foil before filling it. Once the contents have frozen, you can remove the block from the pan, wrap it well and store it without a dish.

• Defrost frozen casseroles in the refrigerator overnight, or pop them into the oven frozen but double the cooking time.

• To know whether a casserole is hot enough in the middle, insert a knife in the center, then withdraw it and see if it is hot to the touch; or cook the casserole to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

There is something so liberating about having hearty, prepped dishes in the freezer that I feel almost compelled to invite people over at the last minute just because I can.

Tuna or Salmon Noodle Casserole Redux

This interpretation of a comfort-food classic is essentially a lasagna, much easier to make using no-cook noodle sheets, one of the food world's great inventions. Tuna packed in oil rather than water (especially Italian or Spanish premium tuna) is preferable; it has much better flavor. The casserole can be assembled a day in advance and refrigerated, or frozen for up to 3 months. The recipe can be cut in half easily, to make 1 stack of noodles instead of 2.

1 Tbsp. olive oil

4 oz. sliced mushrooms

2 cups frozen mixed peas and carrots, defrosted

1 bunch scallions, white and light-green parts, chopped

1 small bunch dill, chopped

1 tsp. salt, plus more for seasoning the vegetables

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning the vegetables

4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1/4 cup flour

4 medium cloves garlic, chopped

1 tsp. powdered mustard

12 oz. canned nonfat evaporated milk (may substitute regular milk)

21/2 cups whole or low-fat milk

1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

1/2 tsp. hot pepper sauce

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

10 sheets no-cook lasagna noodles

4 5-oz. cans tuna in oil, drained and broken up into chunks with a fork; or 20 oz. thinly sliced salmon fillet

1/4 cup panko bread crumbs

1/2 tsp. smoked Spanish paprika

Lightly grease a 2-quart square casserole dish with nonstick cooking oil spray. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Heat the oil in a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the mushrooms and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they exude their juices and become lightly browned. Transfer to a medium bowl; stir in the peas and carrots, scallions and dill. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and the garlic; cook for a few minutes, stirring, to get rid of the raw-flour taste. Add the powdered mustard, then gradually stir in the evaporated milk and the whole or low-fat milk (or all milk, if you are using), whisking continually to keep lumps from forming. Add the Worcestershire and hot pepper sauces, the 1 tsp. of salt and the 1/2 tsp. of pepper. Cook the sauce for 6 to 7 minutes, stirring constantly, until it achieves the consistency of thick gruel. Stir in the cheese. Remove the sauce from the heat and let it cool for 10 minutes.

To assemble: Spread 1/2 cup of the cooled sauce and a sprinkling of vegetables on the bottom of the casserole. (This will prevent the noodles from sticking.) Place 2 lasagna sheets side by side on the bottom. Top the sheets with a quarter of the remaining vegetable mix, a quarter of the tuna or salmon and 3/4 cup of sauce. Starting with a noodle layer, repeat for 3 more layers, then top with a layer of lasagna sheets. (That makes a total of 5 layers of noodles, vegetables and sauce, and four layers of the tuna or salmon.) It is OK if some of the sauce and vegetables pool around the stacked noodles.

Spread the remaining sauce on the top layer of lasagna noodles and sprinkle the panko evenly over the sauce. Sprinkle with smoked paprika. Cover the casserole (loosely, don't smash it) with a square of parchment paper, then seal with aluminum foil. Bake for 35 minutes, then uncover and bake for 20 minutes to brown the crumbs. (If you want them a little browner, turn the broiler on for a couple of minutes and monitor the casserole closely.) Allow the casserole to rest for 10 minutes before serving. Serves 6.

— David Hagedorn

Butternut Squash, Kale and Shiitake Casserole

The Thai green curry paste in this casserole, made with green chilies, garlic, lemon grass, galangal (Thai ginger), onion, coriander, cumin and kaffir lime, takes butternut squash and turns blah into bling. Kale provides nutrients as well as crunch, when the leaves on top crisp in the oven. The casserole can be assembled 2 days in advance, covered and refrigerated. It can be frozen (unbaked) for up to 3 months.

F cup low-fat coconut milk

2 Tbsp. Thai green curry paste

1 tsp. Chinese chili paste with garlic

1 Tbsp. grated ginger root

1/4 cup cream of coconut

2 Tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce or tamari

21/2 pounds peeled, seeded butternut squash, cut into 2-inch pieces

8 oz. large shiitake mushroom caps, cut into quarters

1 bunch kale, center veins removed, leaves torn into large pieces and rinsed and blotted dry

2 Tbsp. white sesame seeds

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking oil spray. Use a whisk to combine the coconut milk, Thai curry paste, Chinese chili paste, ginger, cream of coconut and soy sauce or tamari in a large mixing bowl. Add the squash pieces, mushrooms and kale; stir to coat evenly.

Transfer the vegetables to the baking dish, making sure there are plenty of kale leaves on top (so they will crisp during baking). Sprinkle the top evenly with sesame seeds. Cover with a layer of parchment paper, then seal tightly with aluminum foil. Bake for 35 minutes, then uncover and bake for 25 minutes, or until the squash is fork-tender and the kale on top is dark brown and crisp. Serve warm. Serves 8 to 10.

— David Hagedorn