For some strange reason, women like casseroles, while men hate them. I wonder why that is?
Casseroles all share four essential ingredients: without any one of these ingredients, it can't properly be called a casserole: a carbohydrate , a vaguely pseudo-cream substance, some form of meat, some type of cheese. These are the four essential ingredients of the casserole, but they do not make a true casserole. Here in the south that might be enough, but in the madly demanding land of casserole perfectionism, Vancouver Island, there are two additional requirements: it must be cooked in a glass vessel, and it must be cooked at 350F.
Let's consider each of these attributes---the quintessence of the casserole, if you like---in some detail:
- The carbohydrate. All casseroles are based on some form of carbohydrate. This would typically be macaroni, but any carbohydrate will really do. Women who are trying to disguise a casserole as food will occasionally use a non-macaroni carbohydrate: potatoes or rice are frequently chosen for this decpetive role. There is an old proverb that once a person goes from making tuna casserole with macaroni noodles, to using spaghetti or linguini noodles, she has taken the first step to casserole enlightenment. Well, not really, but I think it's true in any respect.
- The cream. Not real cream, of course. Real cream wouldn't work in a casserole: it must be a pseudo-cream substance. Tinned cream soup is the typical ingredient: the "gold standard" of cream soup for casserole would have to be cream of mushroom; but my vast experience in casseroles suggests that a more subtle flavour is possible with cream of celery. Either way, Campbell's Soup should only be used if there isn't a store brand readily available.
- The meat. I suppose any meat would work, but the true casserole gourmet knows that if the meat didn't come from a can, it's not going to be the ultimate casserole. The superior casserole must use the most un-meaty meat available: tinned tuna or chicken are good choices, sausage is also an excellent choice. I suppose spam would be the ultimate casserole meat.
- The cheese. Every casserole cook aspires to be worthy of using Velveeta in her casserole. Some actually attempt this before their training is complete, showing themselves to be inferior casserole cooks. In any case, casseroles thrive on cheaper cheeses. Store-brand cheddar is a safe choice. Once you have mastered cheddar, work with Velveeta, but do so cautiously, humbly: many casserole chefs seeking enlightenment have fallen on that very peak.
- The glass vessel. A casserole cooked in anything other than a glass cake pan is a casserole doomed to mediocrity. The true casserole is a glasserole. It must be cooked in melted sand.
- The temperature. A casserole cooked at any temperature other than 350F is simply not a casserole. And the true casserole gourmet knows, even those casseroles cooked on the stove-top are incomplete without being shovelled into a glass pan, covered in cheap cheese, and cooked for a nominal time frame at 350F. If the cheese didn't melt at 350 degrees, it's not truly a casserole.
Now, there are any number of pseudo-casseroles out there. To the uninitiated, there are similarities that seem compelling. But to the Vancouver Islander, these are mere chicanery:
- Lasagna. On the surface, lasagna seems like an Italian-themed casserole. But let's be honest: it lacks the pseudo-cream substance. True, those who attempt to subvert proper casserole taxonomy have been known to add ricotta in an attempt to make it more creamy, but the distinguishing palatte can taste the difference reliably.
- Pizza. The spirit of pizza is the antithesis to casserole, but there are those would would subvert the truth. Have you noticed how pizzas with cream sauce have been rising in popularity? For the moment, pizza is safe, but when the fad becomes "white pizza" cooked at 350F on glass plates, I shall certainly swear it off.
- Scalloped potatoes. To be frank, scalloped potatoes are similar to casseroles in almost every way. As a result, I went many years without eating them. But now, I cook scalloped potatoes with gusto, always careful to make them non-casseroles with the following careful adjustments: I use heavy cream, I cook them well over 350F, and I typically use chicken stock, rather than pieces of ham or bacon for flavouring.
For anyone who likes casserole, the six essential points above might help you develop new casseroles. Let's consider a couple variations that might be worth a try for a casserole-eater:
- Middle-eastern casserole: Cook two cups of couscous, lay it in a glass dish, cover in one can of cream of chicken soup. Saute two chicken breasts with rasins, almonds, cumin and cinnamon. Lay the chicken in the dish, cover with cheddar, and bake at 350F for 15 minutes.
- Thanksgiving casserole: layer leftover mashed potatoes and stuffing in a glass dish. Put leftover turkey on the mashed potatoes, cover in cream of mushroom soup and cheddar, bake at 350F for 20 minutes.
My wife was mentioning that she never got the recipe for an (admittedly excellent) "Breakfast Casserole" a friend served us a few years back. I looked at her and said "I'll tell you exactly how to make it!". I mean, it's a casserole...