As a child I remember flipping through my mother's cookbooks from the 1950's. They were full of offbeat gelatin molds and unusual ingredients in one giant dish. And of course for many dinners we had a casserole, the work horse of the family dinner. I, like most of the food-aware crowd, tend to laugh at these old fashioned dishes with a little snarky glee. We wouldn't eat something so simple, something made with canned soup. It's sacrilege. But is it?
Some of the most enjoyable times in my childhood were in fact based around a table with a casserole as the centerpiece. And even to this day, my mom's tuna noodle casserole is comforting, warm, and full of memories. Even if it is made with canned condensed soup! And this, I think, is exactly the reason that casseroles are beginning to enjoy a resurgence of popularity. After all, who doesn't want a delicious meal with minimal preparation?
Emily Farris's book of casseroles, Casserole Crazy, is not the only one to hit the shelves lately, but coming from a self-professed casserole-eating Missouri girl, it seems a little more authentic. In fact, Emily used traditional casserole recipes as a way of learning how to cook following college. She eventually turned her love of these dishes into a trendy yearly competition that quickly moved from her small New York apartment to a restaurant as it grew.
The author has divided her book into several sections, but all still adhere to her rule of casseroles: that they must include at least two solid ingredients and bake in one dish, preferably a Pyrex glass dish. This means that all kinds of breakfast and side dishes fall into the category of casserole, and she gleefully includes them. Flipping through, I recognized more recipes than I care to admit having eaten as a child.
The first recipe that I decided to try was the Baked Scallops and Shells, mostly because I absolutely love scallops. The recipe seemed like a casserole with pretensions of being something with a little more class. As expected, it was incredibly easy to make, and the smell of cheese and scallops filled my apartment. The flavor itself was good, but (I can't believe I'm going to say this) it needed something creamier to hold it together, like condensed soup. One of Emily's goals in the book is to try and get away from canned soups as much as possible, but this one needed a thick creamy inside to hold the shells to the scallops. As is, it resembles Italian pasta with a light sauce that doesn't really stick to any of the ingredients in particular.
Next I tried my personal favorite, Broccoli, Cheese, and Rice Casserole. This is a dish that is served at many restaurants in Texas, where I come from, but I have never been able to find a decent recipe that didn't include a block of Velveeta. I was beginning to think that the casserole actually couldn't be made without chemical cheese products, but this recipe really worked. The fresh mushrooms and broccoli also didn't hurt, and made it much healthier in my eyes.
The final recipe I picked is one that is near and dear to my heart, King Ranch Chicken. It's creamy and filling, and my family always clamors for me to make it when the weather turns cold. This recipe is exactly the same one I use in my family, but I can tell you that the cayenne pepper amount needs to be upped just a little to really be considered Texan (try ½ tablespoon instead of 1 teaspoon).
All in all, Emily's book does a good job of modernizing family favorites that we all ate as kids. Many people will recognize their own family's standbys in this comprehensive book. The only thing I really felt was missing were some pictures, as the book has no photographs. The recipes themselves are easy enough for anyone to try, and aside of a couple of recipes that call for rabbit and tamales, the ingredients can easily be found in any grocery store.