Mac 'n' Cheese Day at the work canteen was the day I looked forward to most, when I had a regular job. It didn't take long for cook to run out on that day. That's why I always put my order in early and had it saved, just in case. I can recall that wonderful warm aroma of toasted cheddar, baked macaroni, plum tomatoes and bacon. It was an irresistible combination - the ultimate in comfort food.
Isn't that the way it is with most casseroles though? I suppose we all have our favourites (no doubt, many containing various flavours of Campbell's soup, especially Cream of Mushroom.) For many Canadians brought up in the '50s and '60s, the tuna fish casserole has to be close to the top. The term "casserole" refers to both the cooking vessel and its contents. A Frenchman coined the actual term "casserole" in 1708, making it 300 years old this year. If that's not a reason to celebrate this culinary phenomenon, I don't know what is.
The reason casseroles became so popular was because they tasted good and made you feel good. They could be made using practically any ingredients. And, because everything could be bunged into the same pot (casserole) and cooked slowly on low, they saved homemakers of the '50s lots of time. You were freed to get on with other work or listen to Elvis (or worry about nuclear war with the Godless Communists.)
My mom was big on casserole cookery. Any time she could cook everything in one dish, she did. Some of her favourites included: turkey legs braised in stock with root vegetables, pasta casseroles made from tuna fish or hamburger, and baked beans with bacon. My personal favourite was her chicken wings cooked with Lipton's onion soup mix, in a large, covered Corning Ware dish. Magnifique! Oh to be able to go back to Mom's little kitchen now, with my cheap bottle of Hungarian SzekszÁrd wine and stuff my face with those yummy wings.
Another great "casserole memory" of mine took place in the middle of the Atlantic on the famous Hibernia oil platform. I was there for a two-day visit courtesy of the Hibernia consortium. The only thing I remember vividly, almost like a movie in my head, was the kitchen and cafeteria on the behemoth platform. (You see why I'm a food writer?) They offered sumptuous food 24 hours around the clock. While I was there Chef Gerard Aucoin - an Acadian living in Newfound- land - made his Shrimp and Scallop Tetrazzini on the Grand Banks. Loaded with cheese, butter and cream it was the most decadent casserole I'd ever tasted. Sooooo good!
Of course, casseroles are popular around the globe. My chef friend, Bob Arneil, of Chef to Go in St. John's has logged more than a few miles in search of great culinary experiences. He confirms that most of the foreign countries he's visited certainly have their versions.
"In France, you have the cassoulet and coq au vin. In Spain, arroz con pollo, the ubiquitous chicken and rice, and, of course, paella, that delicious mix of rice, seafood and chorizo sausage seasoned with saffron. In Morocco, they have the 'tagine' that is also the name of the specialized, funnel shaped pot the dish is cooked in.
Tagines always combine something fruity or sweet with spice to flavour the meat in the dish."
What about indigenous New-foundland casseroles?
"I would consider the many varieties of cod and seafood au gratin, of which I have sampled many delicious examples. Braised caribou or moose in a rich gravy covered in biscuit dough or pastry in an oven is also a favourite."
I asked Chef Arneil if there are any "must do" rules for making a really delicious casserole.
"Use scratch ingredients, stock, beans and legumes that have been soaked, not canned ones, no minute rice, and avoid tin soups as stretchers. (There goes my mushroom soup.) The only convenience-type products I regularly use are canned tomatoes and tomato paste."
Oh the possibilities. I'm so hungry now I think I could make a casserole out of my size 11s and enjoy it. Perhaps a trip to the old canteen is in order. Wait a minute. It's Tuesday isn't it? Why, that's Mac 'n' Cheese Day!
Happy birthday mac 'n' cheese! And all of you other beautiful birthday-celebrating casseroles.
Turkish Chicken Casserole
2 broiler chickens, cut into 8 pieces
60 ml olive oil
6 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 cloves minced garlic
20 ml ground turmeric
Salt and pepper to taste
2 lemons, peeled with pith cut away, thinly sliced
250 ml raisins
1 litre chicken stock
Arrange chicken in a single layer in a roasting pan or casserole dish. Tuck potatoes between chicken, and drizzle olive oil over all. Sprinkle with garlic, turmeric, salt and pepper. Lay lemon slices over and sprinkle with raisins. Pour hot stock over and cook in oven until chicken is cooked through and potatoes are tender, about 40 minutes. Transfer chicken and potatoes to a platter. Tent with foil to keep warm. Simmer liquid until thickened to a light sauce consistency and reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Season sauce as desired and pour over chicken to serve.
- Source: Chef Bob Arneil, Chef to Go
Shrimp and Scallop Tetrazzini on the Grand Banks
12 peeled and deveined shrimp
12 medium sized scallops
1 onion, diced
8 oz fresh mushrooms, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 half-litre whipping cream
1 half tsp. Cajun spice
1 half green bell pepper, cut into thin strips
1 half red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
8 cups cooked fettuccini noodles, cut into 2 inch pieces
2 cups mozzarella cheese, grated
1 half litre whole or 2 per cent milk
4 oz butter
3 oz flour
3 tbsp. Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
Splash of good dry white wine (optional)
SautÉ onion and garlic until tender. Add mushrooms and cook on medium for 2 minutes. If using wine, deglaze pan for 1 minute with just a light splash of white wine. Add flour and cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add milk, then cream and cook for 10 minutes on low. Add scallops and shrimp and cook for 1 minute. Next add peppers, Cajun spice, salt, pepper, Worcestershire and Parmesan. Stir well and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Add cooked noodles. Stir well. Pour into a greased casserole, top with mozzarella and bake at 400 F for 25 minutes or until cheese is golden brown.
- Source: Chef Gerard Aucoin, Hibernia Oil Platform