Nouveau Casseroles Love it or leave it, most of us grew up eating some variation of casserole as part of the family dinner rotation. During these difficult times, embrace your inner child by revisiting a dish from the past — with a few updates.
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Nouveau Casseroles

About The Author

Howard Yoon is a literary agent and editorial director at the Gail Ross Literary Agency in Washington, D.C. He teaches narrative nonfiction for the Masters of Journalism program at Georgetown University.

Few dinner dishes evoke childhood memories as powerfully as the casserole. Remember macaroni mixed with ground beef and cheddar cheese? Or wide egg noodles with flakes of canned tuna, dotted with peas and topped with crushed potato chips? Then there was the 1950s-era fixture of many American dinner tables: creamy green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup, served with crunchy fried onions from a paper canister.

Love it or leave it, most of us grew up eating some variation of casserole as part of the family dinner rotation. Often it was a recipe that Mom fine-tuned over the years to please every family member's taste buds.

"My mom made a casserole she called goulash," a friend told me. "Elbow macaroni, ground beef, canned diced tomatoes, canned tomato sauce, fresh corn, fresh lima beans, salt, pepper and a crushed Ritz cracker topping. Whenever I've had a bad day, I want to eat that."

Another friend echoed this childhood nostalgia: "I have a soft spot for shepherd's pie," he wrote. "Eating one today is like getting a culinary hug from my mom."

During these difficult times, why not give ourselves permission to embrace our inner child by revisiting a dish from the past? Heck, most of us are already in a fetal position anyway from the depressing headlines.

The term casserole means "saucepan" in French, but a more modern translation should be "kitchen sink," as Americans have experimented over the years with all varieties of starches, fillers, binders and toppings. From cornflakes cereal to trendy Japanese panko crumbs, the topping gives the casserole the necessary crunch to contrast with what is almost always a creamy interior.

The filler is usually pasta or rice, protein and veggies, all held together by a thickened binder of milk or cream — sometimes it's chicken or vegetable stock — and cheese both inside the filler and sprinkled along with the topping.

A traditional casserole is not for the faint of heart. Your Weight Watchers point system would probably self-destruct if casseroles became part of your weekly diet.

For all their caloric excess, though, casseroles are popular for other more legitimate reasons: They are easy to prepare; they can be frozen or refrigerated for days in advance; they are cheap to make (a casserole can feed a whole family for a few bucks); and they offer convenience from beginning to end (How many complete dinners can you heat and serve in the same dish?).

But returning to a casserole classic doesn't necessarily mean reaching for the can of cream of mushroom soup that's been in your pantry since the Eisenhower administration. There's no excuse not to saute your own mushrooms or celery, stir in flour and fat, and then add milk to make your own creamy sauce. Trust me. It's easy, and it tastes better than anything you can find in a can.

Once you have the binder, you can experiment with the starch and protein. If you don't like egg noodles, try ziti or fusilli. If a recipe is too dry for your taste, add more liquid. If you don't eat tuna, substitute cubed cuts of chicken or the cheaper tail portion of fresh salmon that's been baked and flaked off with a fork. Choose fillings you know your family will eat.

Now, the toppings debate. I have sampled a number of crusts: panko crumbs, homemade fried onions (soaked in buttermilk, fried with a dusting of flour and corn meal), fried shallots (dusted in corn starch and fried quickly in oil), canned fried onions, crushed potato chips and crushed cornflakes. All of them were delicious, but I thought the onion rings were better on their own, while the shallots were too fragile to hold up to a big bite.

There is just something about the old-school options of cornflakes, chips or canned onions that make a casserole more satisfying. I guess if I'm going to time-travel into my culinary past, I want the one ingredient that makes the dish authentically indulgent.

Another way to look at it is that I like my casseroles the way I like Mickey Rourke: bulked up and grotesquely attractive, dressed with something kitschy that takes it over the top. The combination of all of this is something immensely enjoyable — almost addictive. Like the famous actor turned boxer turned actor again, a good casserole always leaves me wanting more.

So let's bring comfort back. In these uncertain times, it's one of the few things that will make you loosen your belt, not tighten it.

Chicken Chipotle Casserole

Howard Yoon for NPR
Chicken Chipotle Casserole
Howard Yoon for NPR

I came up with this recipe using the popular chipotle chili (smoked jalapeno in adobo sauce) as the key ingredient. Chipotles can be found in 7-ounce cans in the Latino food section of most large grocery stores. Because they pack a lot of heat, I don't usually use more than two in any given recipe. So I freeze them, two at a time, in their adobo sauce in snack-sized plastic bags. I defrost a single pack in the microwave whenever I need it. They will keep like this in your freezer for a couple of months.

Makes 6 servings

4 boneless chicken thighs or 2 large boneless chicken breasts, cubed

1/2 medium white onion, diced

1 stalk celery, diced

1 small red or green bell pepper, diced

1 jalapeno, sliced into rings (remove the seeds if you want less heat)

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup half-and-half

1 cup chicken stock

2 chipotle chilis in adobo sauce, finely minced

14-ounce can chopped or diced tomatoes

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

2 green onions, finely chopped, green and white parts

Zest of 1/2 a lime

1 cup sour cream

1 1/2 cups cheese (use cheddar or a cheddar-Monterey Jack blend), divided

8-ounce package wide egg noodles (or substitute with half a bag of tortilla chips)

Can of fried onions (or use topping recipe in Tuna Casserole below)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and coat a 9-by-13-inch glass casserole dish with nonstick spray. In a large deep skillet, saute the chicken over medium-high heat until fully cooked, 6 to 8 minutes, adding salt and pepper to taste. Remove from pan and set aside.

Lower heat to medium. Saute onion, celery and bell pepper for 5 minutes until they are soft and translucent. Add jalapeno and crushed garlic. Stir for 1 to 2 minutes. Add butter and flour, stirring constantly until the ingredients thicken into a paste. Slowly add half-and-half while whisking, then the chicken stock until mixture has even consistency.

Add the cooked chicken, chipotles, tomatoes, tomato paste, cilantro, green onions and lime zest, stirring constantly. Lower heat. Add sour cream and 1 cup of cheese, and stir until fully incorporated. Salt and pepper to taste.

Fold noodles into the mixture. If using tortillas, lay one thick layer of chips on the bottom of the casserole dish, pour half of the mixture on top, then repeat the layers once more.

Sprinkle top with the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese. Top that with fried onions. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown. Serve with a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

Revamped Tuna Casserole

Howard Yoon for NPR
Revamped Tuna Casserole
Howard Yoon for NPR

If you can afford it, splurge on the more expensive canned tuna packed in olive oil. It makes all the difference in this recipe. Serve with a dash of Tabasco.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 medium white onion, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

1 clove garlic, finely minced

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

2 cups milk, preferably whole milk

4 to 8 ounces frozen peas (depending on how much you like peas)

1 teaspoon salt

Pepper to taste

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard

2 6-ounce cans tuna (preferably packed in olive oil)

8-ounce package wide egg noodles, cooked al dente

Panko Or Bread Crumb Topping

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup panko or bread crumbs

1/4 cup finely chopped parsley

1/2 cup cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray an 8-by-8-inch casserole dish with nonstick spray.

Make topping by melting butter in a saucepan or microwave. Mix butter into panko or bread crumbs, along with parsley and cheese.

In a large deep skillet over medium heat, add olive oil. Saute the onion and celery until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and stir for 1 to 2 more minutes.

Add butter and flour, and stir until combined. Slowly add milk, whisking to eliminate any lumps. Add peas and salt and pepper, and continue stirring over medium heat until milk bubbles and thickens. Turn off heat.

Add cheese and mustard, and continue stirring.

Using a fork, flake tuna from both cans into the mixture until everything, including the oil from the tuna, is incorporated. Add noodles and mix gently with tongs.

Pour the entire contents of the skillet into the casserole dish.

Cover evenly with topping and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until topping is light brown and the mixture underneath is bubbling.

Variation: Shrimp With Smoked Paprika

If you don't like canned tuna, try this twist.

Follow the directions for the tuna casserole, except:

Substitute one red bell pepper, diced, for celery.

Substitute 3/4 to 1 pound peeled, deveined cooked medium shrimp for the canned tuna.

For the Dijon mustard, substitute 1 tablespoon smoked paprika (pimenton), found in gourmet stores and in the spice section of some larger grocery stores.

Creamy Green Bean Casserole

Howard Yoon for NPR
Creamy Green Bean Casserole
Howard Yoon for NPR

The cream of mushroom soup in the 1950s version of this dish gets a makeover with sauteed fresh button mushrooms and a traditional white sauce that's easy to make. The sauce should coat the green beans, not drown them. For the topping, use crushed oyster crackers, saltines or fried onions if you prefer.

Makes 4 to 8 servings

1 pound green beans, trimmed, cut in half

1 tablespoon butter

12 ounces white mushrooms, trimmed and quartered

2 tablespoons flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 sprig fresh thyme

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 cups milk, preferably whole

1 cup shredded cheese (cheddar or Swiss)

Cornflake Topping

2 tablespoons melted butter

1 to 1 1/2 cups cornflakes cereal (placed in a zip-lock bag and crushed by hand)

1/2 cup shredded cheese (use same kind as in main recipe)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray an 8-by-8-inch casserole dish with nonstick spray.

In a large pot of boiling water, cook green beans until firm but tender to the bite, about 5 minutes. Immerse green beans in a large bowl of ice water or run under cold tap water for 2 minutes to preserve color. Allow to drain in colander.

In a large deep skillet over medium high heat, add butter and mushrooms. Stir occasionally until water cooks out of mushrooms, about 5 minutes.

Add flour, salt, pepper, thyme and garlic and stir in milk until consistency is thick and uniform. Turn off heat.

Add cheese and green beans. Mix thoroughly, then pour contents into the casserole dish.

To make topping, pour melted butter over crushed cornflakes in a bowl. Mix in cheese. Spread evenly over the top of the casserole.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until topping is golden brown.

Moroccan Ground Beef Casserole

Howard Yoon for NPR
Moroccan Ground Beef Casserole
Howard Yoon for NPR

The Finns have a traditional macaroni casserole that's simple to prepare but somewhat bland. So are many of the other ground beef-macaroni recipes I've tried over the years. This is my adaptation of the standard ground beef casserole with a Moroccan twist. People may be shy about putting olives or raisins in the recipe, but they really do add a special tang and sweetness to the dish. Add more red pepper flakes if you like it spicier.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 pound lean ground beef

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

2 medium carrots, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup chicken stock

1 cup milk, preferably whole milk

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes

1/4 teaspoon ground pepper

Zest of 1/2 lemon

3/4 cup green olives, chopped roughly

1/2 cup golden raisins

14-ounce can diced tomatoes

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup mild cheese (Gouda, Swiss, mild cheddar), shredded

8 ounces macaroni, cooked and drained

Panko Topping (see Tuna Casserole recipe)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and spray an 8-by-8-inch casserole dish with nonstick spray.

Cook ground beef over medium-high heat in large deep skillet until fully browned. Remove meat from pan and drain juices. Lower heat to medium

Add olive oil, onion and carrots, stirring until tender and translucent, 5 to 6 minutes. Add garlic, stir for 1 more minute.

Add flour and butter, and stir until fully absorbed.

Slowly add stock and milk, stirring until fully incorporated with no lumps.

Add all spices, lemon zest, olives and raisins. Stir. Add tomatoes and tomato paste.

Stir until sauce thickens. Turn off heat. Add cheese and cooked ground beef, and stir until fully mixed. Add cooked macaroni.

Pour into baking dish and spread evenly. Top with topping. Bake for 25 minutes, until top is golden brown.