Saturday, May 12, 2007

Trailer Park Gourmet, Pt. 1

I might well be the world's foremost authority on casseroles. Yes, casseroles. I grew up on Vancouver Island in the 70s and 80s, and that meant one thing: casseroles. I left the Island in the early 90s, and I've endeavoured to avoid casseroles since. Now I live in North Carolina, where casseroles are much more rare; but every once in a while, a casserole makes an appearance in front of me. Not wanting to be rude, I eat it with whatever relish I can muster. But I have to say, southerners just plain don't excel in casseroles like northwesterners do. And frankly, that's a good reason to live in the south.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
See? It's easy to make new recipes. By the way, if you actually try those recipes up and they're edible, leave a comment. I just made them up, but you're welcome to use them.

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...


Ames said...

I can see the reviews on your cookbook now: "Brilliant and insightful!"; "Clumsy brings trailer park cooking to the elite"; "Endless possibilities"; "A must for every house-wife/husband."

Way to go Mr. Ox. The genius behind this post is awe-inspiring.

Guess what's for supper tomorrow?

9 x 13 Anchor-Hocking said...

I object to this post in nearly every way imaginable.

Gwen said...

I have been laughing about this post for the last half hour. I actually think I might try that mid-Eastern casserole tonight. Good one!

Shan said...

Thanks - now I'm hungry.

By the way your made-up chicken casserole recipe is pants. You can't have whole breasts of chicken in there - the pieces have to be smaller. You'd have to slice the chicken breast, saute the strips, then go ahead and layer or mix them.

And for the turkey casserole, I must say you're on the right track except for two key factors: the cream and the cheese is all wrong. For turkey you've got to go with the subtlety of the sage cream sauce. You mix up your roux, eh, then you crumble in some dried sage and pepper, reduce a bit, then toss in the cubed cooked turkey. Then you place a layer of cold, cubed mashed potatoes and stuffing, then a layer of turkey roux, and so on. For cheese with turkey, I've gotta go with a bit of shredded havarti. If you want to kick this casserole up a notch, you throw some vodka in your roux when you're reducing it. Vodka is the secret to all good roux.

clumsy ox said...

Of course you need to dice up the chicken! I guess I ought to have explicitly said "saute the chicken with almonds raisins, etc. then cut it up into pieces".

I actually thought about that, but decided not to bother explicitly mentioning it. But you're right, I was wrong.

Ames said...

Obviously, I didn't write this post and I am not the expert, BUT I think you may be missing the spirit of Trailer Park Gourmet with that vodka, Shan. Budweiser, maybe, vodka, no.

Ames said...

BTW, when can we expect Part 2?

clumsy ox said...

Pseudo-cosmopolitan, faux international themes are the very soul of casserolism. Anyone can throw some noodles, tuna, cream soup, and cheap cheese into a 9 X 13 Anchor-Hocking and make a tuna casserole. But the true casserole chef relies on the pretentious aspirations to international cuisine that rely on jumbling some flavours together and blaming someone else half-way around the world.

Imagine, if you will, a casserole made with ramen noodles, cream of chicken soup, pineapple chunks, and ham. Voila! Hawaiian casserole!

It's all in the presentation.

freedomnan said...

I love casseroles. The only wierd thing about them is the way cookbooks call them "one-dish dinners". Never met a casserole yet that could be made, baked and served in one dish.

Shan said...

Ames, you'd be right except that the premise is faulty: casseroles and trailer parks (or "trailer courts", as I recall) are not correlated. They eat casseroles on Mt Olympus.

Ames said...

Shan, I had completely forgotten about Mt. Olympus. My Greek mythology is rustier that I had feared.

Gwen said...

Jesus Himself gave us the inspiration for the innovative Fish N' Bread Hillside Bake.

KingJaymz said...

Vodka is not trailer park cuisene? I've known people who lived in them and have had diets consisting of quite nearly just that! The only thing that could make it more trailer park is if you could figure out a way to throw in some "herb" if you get what I mean. Maybe that's just the trailer trash in the Pacific NW United States.

PS I hate casseroles. Not even Alton Brown could make me like them (and if anyone could, he most certainly foremost!). A good baked New York sharp cheddar macaroni and cheese would be the singular exception.

Ames said...

Yes, Vodka is sure to be found in abundance in a trailer park. BUT, would it be used in a reduction sauce for a casserole?

KingJaymz said...

Did you ever see the "pork & beans and rum" bit that Jim Carrey did on In Living Color? Maybe that was before your time in the US. He played this nasty old dude who had a psuedo cooking show, and pork & beans or rum were always main ingredients. It always ended with some sort of an argument with his wife (played by Kelly Cofield). It was hilarious!

I guess I'm speaking more of "found" ingredients in the environment, like in the spirit of Mark's Moroccan chicken cassarole, which probably would not be widely found in Morocco.

KingJaymz said...

Or were you joking with me and I was so thick as to miss it?

Ames said...

I thought the post and the comments were supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. The herb remark was great, btw.

PLEASE, say you are not going to abandon the grill to try out your Trailer Park Gourmet, Mr. Ox. PLEEEEASSSSSSEEEE!

(Maybe I should end my "funny" comments with a LOL, or something equally insipid.)

KingJaymz said...

And a late Happy Mother's Day to you, Mark.

uberstrickenfrau said...

Hi there! Found your blog surfing around 'cus frankly-I have no life.
Anyhoo, love the cooking tips. I think you've raised the notch on my white trash cooking just a tad. my family thanks you.

Gwen said...

20th comment!