What is a casserole anyway? Casserole is from the French meaning “Sauce Pan”, a large, deep dish or vessel. It is also the name given to the food cooked in such a dish. Now that the definition is out of the way, what really makes up a casserole?
If you are going to present a classic dish, you really have to follow an exact recipe. If you say the dish is Coq au vin, it had better taste like Coq au vin. Those who have eaten it before know what it is supposed to taste like. There are “rules” to cooking classic dishes if you are going to present them as such. You can’t just slap together a cold potato soup and call it Vichyssoise. When it comes to making a casserole though, you can throw the rule book out the window.
Although I’m telling you there are no rules, there are some basics you have to consider. First, there will be meat. I know, the vegans cringe when they hear the word, but to me, an entree isn’t food unless there is a dead animal involved. Any red meat (beef, venison, buffalo, squirrel etc) can be used and cut into cubes, thin strips or be ground, depending on your preference or whim. Through most of my cooking career, though, casseroles have usually been made with chicken or tuna, but sometimes pork. (OK, you vegans out there, you can make a vegetable casserole, but it’s just not right.)
The next thing is the veggies. When it comes to vegetables, I only go with fresh, but in a pinch you can use fresh frozen, never canned. Canned vegetables are already cooked and will just turn to mush in your casserole. Use crisp, fresh carrots, a diced potato or any other starchy root food, after all, these will help to thicken everything up. Consider next what kind of liquid you are going to use. The liquid can be water, wine, milk, crushed stewed tomatoes, I have even heard of using Gin. (If you like the idea of a tomato taste, consider trying some V-8 Juice.) You don’t want to over use your liquid of choice because a casserole just isn’t right if you have to use a spoon to eat it. Somewhere during this process, choose seasonings to your own tastes. You also need some egg noodles, elbows or some other kind of pasta, maybe even rice.
Got all your ingredients together? It’s time to start cooking. Make sure your meat is cut into same size pieces, as this will help it all cook evenly. Brown off your meat using little oil, a casserole should not be greasy. Once that step is done, sprinkle with flour and form a roux and remove it from the heat.
Combine the rest of your solid ingredients with the meaty roux and blend it all well and evenly. When you have the perfect look, pour your liquid of choice over the dish you have created, the top it all off with something crispy. Bread crumbs, or crushed crackers are good, but I like those crispy fried onions that come in a can.
Cover your dish and place in your preheated oven for about 40 minutes. Remove the cover and continue to cook for about 15 to 20 minutes to crisp the top. Call in your family and friends and dig in.
So, that’s about it. These are just general guidelines to get you through, use them or ignore them. When it comes to casserole you should just go crazy and use your imagination, thinking of all the tastes you would like to try together. What? That’s not the way you were taught? Hey, when it comes to casserole, there are no rules.