When it comes to most dishes, the finished product that pops out of the oven is almost always an improvement on the ingredients that went into it. Just think about a crusty hunk of French bread: One whiff of the loaf as it’s placed on the cooling rack, and you’re ready to sink your teeth into its crackly goodness. But would it be quite as exciting to eat a few spoonfuls of the flour that serves as the bread’s foundation, or the yeast that ensures it’s full of those deliciously chewy air bubbles? I seriously doubt it.
The same goes for the sweet side of things. The ingredients that — through time, science and a little bit of culinary magic — compose your favorite caramel frosting might seem appealing on their own, but unless you’re ready for folks to seriously worry about your health, both physical and mental, you shouldn’t be gobbling down sticks of butter or cups of sugar anytime soon.
In the kitchen, the whole is (mostly) greater than the sum of its parts.
Casseroles, though, are different. More often than not, even after being baked to gooey perfection, you can still taste — and differentiate between — the various pieces of the larger casserole puzzle. When Great-Aunt Jean plops her signature broccoli and cheese casserole down on the holiday table, you know you’ll be able to taste each element of the dish, together and apart: the comforting ooze of the cheese sauce, the healthy snap of the broccoli and the crunch of the bread-crumb topping. Casseroles offer us a way to appreciate ingredients both for what they are and what they’ve been able to build together.
This kind of responsibility can also be a little bit hard on casserole ingredients. If a dish falls short or is downright bad — say, the tuna in your tuna noodle casserole has gone a little skunky — people know exactly where to place the blame. (Note: please do not serve skunky tuna.) But it also gives us the opportunity to celebrate the ingredients and what they bring to the table all those times when we’re able to find pleasure in their familiarity and warmth.
So, ladies and gentlemen, I present the first ever Casserole Component Appreciation Awards, brought to you by my love of comfort foods — and what I’m assuming is yours, too.
The Casserole Superstar Award: Meats and Vegetables
Common ingredients: Beef, chicken, greens of all kinds, seafood
Ah, the casserole superstars. These are the ingredients that lend the casserole its name — shrimp and mirliton casserole! chicken and rice casserole! — and make us want to whip it up in the first place. They’re the components of the dish that you’re fishing for when a scoop lands on your plate, hoping that the ratio of meat-and-veggie-to-other-stuff has skewed in your favor.
And across the Gulf South, there’s a genre of casserole that’s long been a part of family repertoire but, for some reason, continues to baffle cooks in the rest of the country: the seafood casserole. Like etiquette “rules” about not wearing white after Labor Day and always passing the salt and pepper as a pair, there’s the long-held culinary adage that fish and dairy just don’t belong together — ever. Fortunately, we’ve ignored that to our delicious advantage. With seafood as the foundational ingredient — whether shrimp, crawfish, crab or whatever is freshest out of the water — casseroles can embrace a decidedly local flair, all while retaining a more delicate, lithe texture and flavor profile than a helping of casserole in which ground beef is the hulking, macho star. I’m even a notorious fan of tuna casserole — which, I know, is deeply polarizing — and have been known to serve it as a dinner party entrée to, uh, mixed reactions from guests.
“A casserole is a baked dish that is meant to meld different ingredients, so that when they come together, the whole is more rich and robust than the ingredients. I think of seafood casserole in a similar way to gumbo, where the seafood is cooked into the base, contributing to the whole dish in a different way than a quick grilled shrimp or sautéed piece of fish would,” says Chef Ryan Prewitt of Pêche in New Orleans.
And, as with most dishes, the fresh-is-best motto rings true. (Sorry, my beloved canned tuna.)
“As with any dish, start with the freshest, best seafood you can. It always counts. Get the fresh shrimp just out of the water and the just-picked crabmeat, and your casserole will beat every other one at the Thanksgiving table. Conversely, if you use cheap, imported, low-quality seafood, your casserole will taste like it. Don’t do this to your family.” (Words of wisdom from Chef Ryan.)
The Casserole Sidekick Award: Starches
Common ingredients: Rice, beans, pastas of all shapes and sizes
Everyone loves to take sidekicks for granted. From action movies to classic cartoons, it’s easy to simply assume a fearless hero’s sidekick is going to be there to serve as a second-in-command and, ultimately, help save the day. The same goes for casseroles, where sidekick ingredients — the pasta, rice and beans — do the heroic labor of quietly fleshing out the dish, all while ensuring that their superstar meat-and-veggie counterparts are heaped with praise.
So, yeah, no one really wants to be the unfortunate soul whose slice of casserole is starchy sidekicks only, just like no one wants to watch an episode of Seinfeld strictly about George Costanza. But, ultimately, the sidekicks add a level of roundedness and support that ensures a casserole is a holistic meal-in-a-dish. They are, undoubtedly, the starchy workhorses of the casserole.
The Casserole Third Wheel Award: Soup, Sauces and Beyond
Common ingredients: Cream of [fill in blank here] soup, cheesy Mornay sauces, a roux
Look, I see you over there, rolling your eyes about cream of mushroom/broccoli/celery soup. That might be nice for some people, you’re thinking, but that’s just not for me. You make your own kombucha. You have a window box full of fresh herbs. The vendors at the farmers market know you by name. I get all that. But I promise: You are not too good for canned soup — particularly when it comes to casseroles.
A casserole’s thickening agent — which, historically, has often been a commercial, condensed soup — plays the all-too-pivotal role of binding everything together when the dish is bubbling up in the oven. Without it, a casserole-in-the-making is simply meat and starch, lonely and dry, without that crucial component that brings the whole gang into an edible bear hug.
Arguably, the binding agent is what sets a true casserole apart from, say, a lasagna or a shepherd’s pie. Not to launch into a culinary semantics argument — à la “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” — but the fact that a casserole requires its thickening and binding agent to play a role that’s just as pivotal as the superstar and sidekick ingredient’s role is, in my estimation, what truly sets it apart. (Can you really say the same for even the most sauce-packed lasagna? Didn’t think so.) The casserole is truly a work of teamwork and cohesion.
Best Casserole Accessory: The Insulated Casserole Tote
Above all else, casseroles are dishes meant to be shared: served up to a gaggle of eager feasters on fine china or paper plates, around fancy candlelit spreads or in the office breakroom. And even if the thought has secretly crossed your mind (guilty as charged), no one really wants to take on the task of eating an entire casserole on their own — it’s just too darn depressing.
Casseroles’ group magnetism also means that they’re often — quite literally — on the move. Whether you’re lugging a stack of chicken-and-rice dish to your in-laws for Thanksgiving or trying out a new recipe at a White Elephant present swap, your casserole needs to achieve that fresh-from-the-oven taste, smell and consistency, even if it’s spent a couple of hours in the car being hauled from Mobile to Orange Beach.
Enter the insulated casserole tote — your casserole’s new best friend. A curiously specific creation that seems like it was born to star in a late-night infomercial, the casserole tote is a padded, thermal bag into which your favorite creation can be snugly tucked and then safely carried without fear of spillage, sloshing or temperature-change malfunctions. Most often sized to fit a classic 9×13 baking dish, the totes typically range in price from 14 to 40 bucks and offer varying degrees of insulation promises when it comes to just how warm it can keep your homey creation. There are also some seriously tricked-out versions, like one from Rachael Ray that comes in multiple sizes for accommodating non-traditionally shaped casserole dishes, to a double casserole tote that’s built for cold dishes on the bottom and hot on the top, to an official Pyrex version that promises complete heat retention for several hours.
Like any good accessory, the totes also allow the cook to express their individual personalities. There’s a watermelon-patterned casserole tote, versions made with funky tie-dye fabric and several of the jewel-tone variety that seem downright regal.
Perhaps most important, there are also Saints-themed casserole totes, because of course.
Lifetime Achievement Award: Green Bean Casserole
The swirl of mushroom-y, umami goodness. The zippy, munchable bite of French-fried onions. And that flash of emerald holding it all together! If there’s one dish that’s sure to turn heads when strutting down the holiday table red carpet, it’s green bean casserole.
Created by Dorcas Reilly in 1955 for the Campbell Soup Company, green bean casserole has become pretty much synonymous with the time of year when the weather (hopefully) turns a little colder, and hot toddies are socially acceptable to sip no matter the actual temperature. Reilly created the dish with the hopes it would be something simple families could whip up with ingredients that they already had stocked in their pantry.
“It’s very tasty if it’s made the right way,” Reilly’s husband, Tom (now 91) told the New Jersey Star-Ledger in 2017. “It’s a very simple meal. It’s comfort food. We’ve heard many people recognize it as the original comfort food.”
It’s also infinitely malleable, which means every family can DIY their own unique spin on the dish. Some recipes become green bean-anchored tributes to French onion soup — complete with gruyere cheese oozing over the top. Other families swear by adding bacon to the mix, for obvious reasons, or they up the creaminess by swirling in a dollop of ricotta or cottage cheese.
If you’re looking for a way to elevate your green bean casserole to quasi-fine-dining status, Jamie Brown of BouillaBabes Catering in Baton Rouge has a few tricks up her sleeve. “I fancy mine up by doing a trio of mushrooms — shiitake, baby bella and oyster — that I first sauté in butter and garlic, then top the finished dish with grated Manchego cheese for a subtle nutty finish. The result is so mouthwatering and delicious!” (You can also do what I do and just call the green beans “haricot verts” with an exaggerated French accent.)
At its vegetable-filled heart, green bean casserole embodies the best of what casseroles can provide: a serving of nostalgia-tinged comfort during a time of year when thoughts — and stomachs — turn towards memories of home.