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Crank up the air conditioner. Put on a sleeve. Cut the grass. Rake the leaves. The weather is still making up its mind with the last of the summer showers washing away my new fall allergies, the sneezing and wheezing that is sure to gain me an eviction from a restaurant or (fingers crossed) at least the solitude and space for which I often yearn. We are starting to see greens in bulk. It’s turnip season. The fruit is changing. It’s apple season. It’s pear season. It’s chili weather because it’s football season. It’s root vegetable season. It’s soup season. Duck season, wabbit season, who can tell?
At least I can tell you what it is for me. With all of the climatic indecision and changing leaves, I am deeming this casserole season. From root vegetables to greens to fall fruits, I am entering into my favorite time of year as every one of the aforementioned seasons could be featured in a casserole. The casserole is my reward for overcoming the side effects of antihistamines, blowing my nose and hacking my way through October.
Casseroles are side dishes. Casseroles are main courses. They are vegetarian or full of meat. Usually, there will be cheese. Sometimes you find a grain. Casseroles are always featured in delis, diners and such, but we barely cook them during the warmer months. Maybe we are worried about carbs all summer. As soon as the pool closes, break out the bakeware. Is there a low-carb casserole? I’ve never seen one. Come to think of it, I never looked.
My first of the season was last night. It was my mother-in-law’s moussaka. Imagine lasagna made of eggplant. It’s one of my favorite dishes, and I shared that recipe on these pages a couple of years ago. Countless recipes of casseroles flood the internet and food magazines, some of which will require a specialty grocer or ingredients ordered online. If you want to put your finger on the pulse of the real casserole world, you may want to open your mind to standards lower than that of a Michelin-starred chef and turn toward a church cookbook or “Bell’s Best.”
I’m talking about 1960s-era, health-be-damned casseroles. In these pages, certainly cans of soup will be used with zero apologies. I have a loose rule that while reading these books you have to take a shot every time someone uses the word “oleo.” Measurements need not be exact. Instructions will begin with phrases like, “You get…” or “Sprinkle a little…” I love it. When people say, “Church it up,” they don’t mean make it fancy. This is what churching it up is all about. The amateur cookbook.
That slice of Americana, the cookbook of the contributors, blurs the focus that a single author might bring to the table. It’s the contrast from that faithful Sunday school teacher at the young adults group whose recipe is no more or less important than the back pew rider who shows up on Easter and Midnight Mass that makes these books interesting. That same effect could also be what keeps you reading this paper. These recipes are the modern versions of epic poetry, verbally passed down from one generation to the next. At some point, someone capitalized on it by writing it down. Someone else put it into a collection.
First off, you are reading these recipes because someone liked them. No one put a gun to anyone’s head, nor did they get paid to contribute. Every recipe is in there because a friend or a family member encouraged them to submit it. And if it’s bad, well, that’s far worse than printing it in a weekly newspaper. It’s annual, so the contributor of the poor recipe will wear the dunce cap until he or she redeems herself in the next compilation. Church bullying is rough!
With so much at stake, the casseroles in these books are among the best, be they secular or non-secular. Praise the Lord and pass the hot sauce. This shepherd’s pie needs a bit of fire and brimstone to get you to the church on time, and the deviled ham casserole on the next page is heavenly. In some way, each of these submissions is a star to somebody.
So, if you want to get started in the casserole game, you’ll need a few things to be taken seriously. Vary your types of dishes by material. You will need something Pyrex, which can be more than four times stronger than its glass counterparts, and can therefore handle larger temperature variations.
Ceramic and porcelain pieces from brands such as Staub may seem a little pricey, but they’re well worth the investment. Whatever brands you choose, it’s a bonus when the dish is oven-, microwave- and dishwasher-safe, but the least of your concerns is the dishwasher. Just remember, size matters.
You will constantly be in need of different sizes for different recipes. There will be no universal length, width or depth. If you are new to the game, start with a 13-by-9-inch casserole dish and a 9-by-9-inch dish with a lid. These can get you out of most situations. I also love any casserole dish that has a plastic, air-tight lid.
Get your practicing in now. Make a pumpkin casserole for Halloween. Refine that boring broccoli casserole into something that will steal the show on Thanksgiving. Don’t be scared of a recipe that uses a can of cream of mushroom soup. Church it up by topping your casserole with crumbled Ritz Crackers soaked in butter. Be loose with the measurements, because this casserole song and dance isn’t baking.
Fancy or low-rent, the mighty casserole is not dinner for one. Find a friend or neighbor. Try a new one or go with a classic. A lot can be shared over a 2-inch-deep dish, and now is the season.
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