Whoa! Don’t throw out the last of those peas, or that cauliflower, or that tiny bit of couscous you are not sure what to do with. And for heavens sakes, don’t compost foods that are still good and edible just because you are left with an odd amount or maybe have too much. Casseroles are here to save the day and make good use of lot’s of food that would otherwise be wasted.
A casserole is basically any mixture of foods that is baked and served in a large, deep pan which is called a casserole dish. These deep baking pans can be very large or small and any shape: round, square, or most popularly, oblong. They come in a multitude of colors and styles but most will come with a lid and they must be oven worthy for longer baking times of large amounts of food.
The sky is the limit with a good casserole pan and many people keep and use the same one for years. I can still remember my mom’s old faded yellow casserole; she must have had it for 40 years. Seems like I’ve had mine for about as long and I use it almost once a week. I consider it a real kitchen necessity.
Casseroles are Great News to those living off grid, or with power outages, or just trying to economize and avoid waste.
Every kitchen, on or off grid, should have a casserole dish and they are priced to suit any budget, from about $20 to $100+. Buying a sturdier one will allow you to explore the casserole’s great adaptability to varying use and conditions.
A good casserole dish can double as a dutch oven (very low heat on the stove), a bar-b-que cooker (set on the grill after the fire is out), and a non-electric crock pot (used in a sun oven or with other passive heating methods). Any of these alternative cooking methods can be useful to those who want to limit their use of public utilities (electricity, natural gas) or suddenly find themselves forced to do so.
So what kinds of foods can you use to make a casserole? Answer: Anything you want. The internet is overwhelmed with casserole recipes and there are cook books dedicated solely to casseroles. Some recipes call for only 2 or 3 ingredients, others call for dozens. Some recipes are a tossed together mix, others are carefully layered, with one ingredient atop another.
I prefer the layered approach myself but that may only be best when you have enough of each food you want to add to make it’s own layer. If you have mainly a handful of this and a little bit of that, then a combined mixture might be better.
Another great thing about casseroles is that there really is no measuring involved. Nevermind the measuring cups, or teaspoons, tablespoons, only one of this, or must have two of that. In casserole land you simply use what you have. All that will fit in the casserole dish goes in — that’s the only rule.
Here’s a simple and easy mixture-style casserole recipe (I call it Rainbow Casserole because a whole spectrum of foods can be used in this one):
- Cooked Rice (leftover if you have it or cook about 2 cups of it. Mashed potatoes, quinoa or couscous can be substituted for the rice).
- Cooked vegetable leftovers hanging out in your fridge (any will do: peas, green beans, cauliflower, broccoli, any and all beans, spinach, carrots, corn… it’s all good)
- Raid the fridge for more (got any onions?, garlic? celery that’s looking a little sad? chop ’em up, put ’em in there)
- Can of soup (my mom always used Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom but I believe almost any can of ready made soup will do).
- Got any cheese, parmesan, some Panko crumblies? (this is optional but generally it’s nice to spread something on top of the mixture before baking. Get creative.)
- You can spray or grease the bottom and sides of your casserole dish, but word to the wise, that doesn’t always prevent sticking. Casseroles are often a sticky business (but worth it! Great kid pleasers and they go a long way and keep well).
- Take all of the treasures you found in your fridge and chop them up to similar size and place in a mixing bowl.
- Take your cooked rice and stir that in with the vegetables in the mixing bowl.
- Now would be a good time to add spices, herbs, salt and pepper to taste — but since most of what you’re using has been cooked before you may not need much seasoning.
- Open up your can of soup — mushroom? tomato? vegetable? whatever — pour it over the mixture, maybe add about a 1/4 can of water to make sure it will saturate but only enough so that the mixture holds together and stir and mix (with your hands if too thick for a spoon).
- Spread the mixture evenly in the casserole dish and sprinkle the ingenious topping you created over the top.
- Into the oven at a low heat, 300 – 350 degrees, for 45 minutes generally.
And wah-la — you have tasty, nutritious, inexpensive meal that avoids waste and can feed a lot of people.
Serving suggestion: For sides, add rolls, or bread and corn on the cob, or a simple green salad could be just the right compliment.
And especially if you are Californians and the lights have gone low for non-romantic reasons, a good ole casserole ‘like mom used to make’ will make great comfort food and stop some spoilage.
More to come in future articles about how to cook casseroles and other foods off grid and with alternative cooking methods.