Our mothers served a number of "casseroles" and the foreign word sounded quite exotic back then. Unfortunately, the word has gotten a bad rap over the years. Maybe its questionable reputation emerged because mothers served them so often, they lost their unique appeal. Or, maybe it's because casseroles became a convenient label for the mystery dish that came from cleaning out the refrigerator or blending several nights of leftovers. Eventually, all casseroles began to taste like one version or another of lumpy cream of mushroom soup, the term lost its luster, and its use diminished with time. So, I'm reluctant to resurrect the word "casserole" for this column. Why dredge up its sordid past?
However, there is still universal appeal to meals that can be prepared and served in one dish. In fact, the French word "casserole" refers to the large pot or dish used in the oven and as a serving dish. The word has also come to refer to the food cooked and served in such a dish. Casseroles usually consist of one or more meats or vegetables, a liquid, e.g., stock, wine, beer, or vegetable juices, and some kind of ingredient like rice, pasta or potato to thicken the sauce and complement the other foods. Casseroles may be served as a side dish but are often the main course.
As the weather cools, our cravings for soups, stews and casseroles increase. These dishes warm our bodies and provide a hearty meal after a long, hard day. Ma-Po is one of my favorite autumn/winter dishes but I think your family will enjoy all three of these recipes. They're great for potlucks, too!
>Corn and Green Chili Tamale Casserole (serves 4)
6 4-oz frozen chicken or beef tamales
1 10-oz package frozen white or yellow corn
1 4-oz can diced mild green chilis
3 green onions, chopped
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup whipping cream
1 7-oz can salsa verde
11/2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
Optional: Avocado wedges, Extra salsa verde
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place frozen tamales in microwave and cook on high until thawed, about 5 minutes. Remove husks.
2. Cut tamales in half lengthwise. Place in single layer in 10-inch round glass pie dish. Sprinkle with frozen corn, chilies, green onions and 1/2 cup cilantro.
3. Whisk cream, salsa verde, chili powder, cumin, salt and pepper in medium bowl to blend. Drizzle over everything.Sprinkle grated cheese over top. Bake casserole until heated through and bubbling, about 35 minutes.
4. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup cilantro. Serve with avocado and more salsa, as desired.
Ma-Po Tofu - Spicy Tofu with Beef (serves 4)
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
11/2 pounds soft (not silken) tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 Tbsp Chinese hot bean paste (also called chili bean sauce)*
1 Tbsp Chinese black-bean paste or sauce*
4 Tbsp oyster sauce
2 Tbsp Asian chili powder *
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1/4 cup peanut oil
4 oz ground beef
1/4-inch piece fresh ginger, minced (about 1 tsp)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 scallion (white and green parts), thinly sliced on diagonal
1/4 cup rice wine
1 medium leek (white and pale green parts only), washed, halved lengthwise, and cut into 1/2-inch slices (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 cup chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
1 Tbsp light soy sauce
1 Tbsp dark soy sauce
2 Tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped (optional)
* Available at Asian markets and in the Asian section of some supermarkets
1. In a heavy skillet over moderate heat, stir and toast peppercorns until fragrant, 3-5 minutes. Transfer to bowl and let cool; grind in a spice grinder to fine powder and set aside.
2. In large pot over moderately high heat, bring 4 cups water to boil. Add the tofu, remove from heat, and let steep uncovered for 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer tofu to medium bowl and set aside.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together hot bean paste, black-bean paste, 2 Tbsp oyster sauce, and chili powder. Set aside.
4. In a small bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and 3 Tbsp water; set aside.
5. In a wok or heavy large sauté pan over moderate heat, heat oil until hot but not smoking. Add beef, ginger, garlic and scallions and stir-fry until meat is browned, about 1 minute. Add rice wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of moisture evaporates, about 1-2 minutes. Add hot bean paste mixture and cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is blended and oil in pan turns red, about 1 minute.
6. Add tofu, leeks, stock, light and dark soy sauces, and remaining 2 Tbsp oyster sauce and bring to boil. Whisk cornstarch mixture to re-blend; add to pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until juices thicken slightly, about 1 minute.
7. Sprinkle with Sichuan peppercorn powder and cilantro, as desired. Serve immediately, with rice as side dish.
Family Chicken Pot Pie (serves 6)
1 Tbsp each olive oil and butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 tsp finely minced garlic
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
2 tsp dried tarragon
3 carrots, halved and cut into 1-inch pieces (1-1/2 cups)
1 cup peeled and diced (1/2-inch) russet potatoes
1 Granny Smith apple, cored and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2-1/2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
1 medium-sized ripe tomato, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch diced pieces
2-1/2 cups diced cooked chicken
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 sheet prepared puff pastry (1/2 pound), thawed if frozen
1 egg mixed with 1 Tbsp water
1. Heat the oil and butter in a pot over low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, for about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook 2 minutes more. Sprinkle with the flour and tarragon; cook, stirring constantly, about 1-2 minutes more.
2. Add the carrots, potatoes, apple, and broth; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer and cook, partially covered, until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Add the peas, dill, tomato and chicken; season to taste with salt and pepper, then cook 5 minutes more.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spoon the mixture into a 2-quart round ovenproof casserole. On a lightly floured surface, roll puff pastry out to form a circle 2 inches larger than the casserole. Brush some egg wash around the inside and outside rim of the casserole. Lay the pastry over the top, trim to 1 inch, and crimp the edges around the rim to seal.
4. Cut several slits in the pastry to release the steam, then brush with remaining egg wash. Bake until crust is golden, 40-45 minutes.
Jacqui Love Marshall lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at email@example.com.