12.08.08

The Ultimate Recession Food

Break out the Pyrex—the casserole, America's classic hard-times dish, is hot again.

I was barely out of the bassinet when the country last experienced a recession. Though the economy recovered, my parents’ bank accounts never really did.

I grew up in a lower-middle-class suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, and not a week went by when we didn’t have at least one of three casseroles on the table (and in the refrigerator for days after): broccoli cheese (Velveeta, of course), green bean, or my favorite, classic tuna noodle made with canned tuna, canned peas, and canned cream of mushroom soup.

A casserole is really no more than the sum of a few simple ingredients—canned or fresh—baked together in one dish.

While this didn’t necessarily put me on the path to culinary greatness, I made it through college without opening a single pack of ramen. I could easily survive on $20 a week, even if I was hesitant so share my Midwestern meal secrets with my East Coast, liberal arts peers. But once I finally did, and a food snob friend devoured my macaroni and corn casserole with a plastic spoon, I organized my First Annual Casserole Party. A few parties, a New York Times write-up, a contemporary casserole cookbook, and an economic collapse later, it seems everyone wants to know how we made it in Midwest.

The few family recipes that didn’t come from the back of a soup can were passed down from my grandmother who survived the Great Depression. During the 1930s and up until the end of World War II, many families subsisted on bread and very little meat (sometimes rationed). One-dish meals that could be made on the cheap were the best option for feeding the entire family, plus some random cousin nobody really knew who had somehow ended up sleeping on the floor. Mixing bread crumbs or potatoes with beef and a canned vegetable was the best way to make a little bit of food last a whole lot longer. More people? More potatoes. This was the birth of the casserole as we know it today—a dish that has a bad rap in America’s culinary history but is making a comeback now that the economy has tanked.

Luckily, no longer does a cheap casserole mean the bland hot dishes of Grandma’s generation or the cream-of-mushroom-soup concoctions Mom made. While some of us might still have long-lost family members or recently unemployed college buddies crashing on our floors, we don’t have to eat exactly like our grandparents did. Not only do we have accessible fresh produce—comparable in price to canned or frozen versions—we have more sophisticated palates.

Most of my friends are amazed at the one-dish dinners I can throw together for less than $20—potato and cauliflower gratin, baked risotto with Portobello mushrooms, and a chicken casserole with cheddar cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. Every once in a while, though, I have a hard time convincing people of the contemporary casserole’s merits.

Around this time three years ago, my boyfriend was not-so-subtly discouraging me from making my macaroni and corn casserole for his parents' Upper East Side Thanksgiving dinner. "It's not really the kind of thing they'll go for," he said.

I wasn't all that surprised. Because of the flavorless, colorless canned concoctions that had graced Midwestern dinner tables for the past few decades, in his mind the casserole had become synonymous with Milwaukee's Best and contemporary country music. And in my experience, the comparison was not completely unwarranted.

But what my boyfriend didn’t quite realize—and what I had only gathered a few years earlier when I moved to New York and began cooking for myself—was that casseroles can just as easily be made with fresh green beans and fancy cheese from the farmers’ market. A casserole is really no more than the sum of a few simple ingredients—canned or fresh—baked together in one dish.

"I use good cheese," I urged. "And organic corn." Much to his chagrin, my vintage Pyrex full of elbow macaroni, sweet corn, caramelized onions, sharp cheddar, mozzarella, and gruyere—with a perfectly browned parmesan and butter crust—sat alongside the free-range turkey and $40 bottle of wine on his family’s Thanksgiving spread.

Three years later, that same macaroni and corn casserole was on the menu for the Thanksgiving dinner I hosted—but so much has changed. As food prices increase and wages and hours are cut, families on the Upper East Side and in Missouri suburbs alike are looking for ways to make grocery budgets last longer. In this economy, it wouldn’t hurt to take a cue from those who have survived recessions and depressions before us.

You can make lean ground sirloin last by baking it with pasta, garlic, mushrooms, smoked gouda, sharp cheddar, and fresh cherry tomatoes. Stretch your spicy chorizo for week when you bake it with a can of crushed tomatoes, pasta, Parmesan, and basil. Experiment with new flavor combinations. Or classic ones. And then pair it with a bottle of red in the $10 range.

Earlier this week as I stared at my refrigerator full of vegetables from the Greenmarket, I couldn’t ignore my hankering for old-school tuna noodle casserole, like Mom used to make. Though I substituted frozen, organic sweet peas for canned, and added chopped white onion, the ingredients cost about $10 and I have enough to last me the rest of the week—well, most of the week; I went back for seconds.

Almost Classic Tuna Noodle Casserole | Sweet Potato Not Pie | Seduction (Mac & Corn 2.0)

Emily Farris is the author of Casserole Crazy: Hot Stuff for Your Oven and founder of New York’s Annual Casserole Party. When not slaving over casseroles in her tiny Brooklyn kitchen, she edits Nerve's culture blog, Scanner.

Almost Classic Tuna Noodle Casserole

While a “real” classic tuna noodle uses canned peas, I prefer frozen sweet peas that go in right before baking.

Serves 5-6

Ingredients
12 ounces large egg noodles
1 (10.75 oz.) can cream of mushroom soup
2 (6 oz.) cans white albacore tuna
1 large white onion, chopped
16 oz. frozen sweet peas (preferably Cascadian Farm)
Salt and pepper
2 cups French-fried onions or a few handfuls of potato chips

Directions
Preheat oven to 375°F.

Parboil the noodles just under al dente, drain, and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl combine the soup, noodles, onion, tuna, peas, and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a 2 ½- to 3-qt. casserole dish. Bake, uncovered for 35-40 minutes or until bubbling. Remove and add the crunchy topping of your choice.

Bake uncovered for an additional 10 minutes.

Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Sweet Potato Not Pie

I joke that this dish is the savory answer to my dad's candied sweet potatoes, made with sweet potatoes from a can, marshmallows, and brown sugar. And it works as well for Christmastime as it does for Thanksgiving. While this has a similar color scheme as traditional yams, it's made entirely out of fresh ingredients and will show up candied sweet potatoes at any table in any part of the country. Also, it's gluten free.

Serves 5-6 as a side dish

Ingredients
5-6 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large white onion, chopped
6-8 oz. fresh goat cheese
1 green habañero or jalapeño pepper (depending on how much spice you like), chopped approximately 1/3 cup of olive oil (you may not use it all)
Salt to taste

Directions
Preheat oven to 400ºF.

Cover the bottom of a 2-qt. casserole dish with a layer of sweet potatoes. Add a layer of onions, peppers, and crumbled goat cheese. Drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Repeat layers until you reach the top of your dish (try to finish with sweet potatoes and just a drizzle of olive oil), saving at least 1 oz. of goat cheese for the end.

Cover and bake at 400º for an hour and 15 minutes to an hour and a half or until a fork goes through the entire dish easily. Remove from the oven and cover with the remainder of goat cheese. Bake, uncovered, for an additional 10-15 minutes.

Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Seduction (Mac & Corn 2.0)

Don’t blame me if every person who eats this wants to sleep with you, marry you, or both. Or blame me if you want. There’s a reason this, my signature casserole, is called “Seduction.” And it’s not because the ingredients themselves are sexy. I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination. This dish is served best with a bottle of dry red, a mixed green salad, and your favorite playlist.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients
1 lb. cavatelli
2 cloves garlic, minced (you might want to skip if you’re actually trying to seduce someone)
1 large white onion, diced
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup milk (low fat or skim is fine, not that it really matters at this point)
1/2 lb. sharp cheddar, cubed or shredded
1/2 lb. white cheddar, cubed or shredded
1/2 lb, Gruyère, cubed or shredded
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1 (10 oz, bag) Cascadian Farm frozen organic sweet corn
Salt and pepper
1/2 lb. fresh mozzarella, cubed
2 plum tomatoes, thinly sliced

Directions
Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Parboil the pasta, drain and set aside.

In a large pot, over medium heat sauté the garlic and onion in 2-3 tbsp of olive oil. When the onions begin to brown, reduce the heat to low, add milk, and stir. Add both cheddars and Gruyère while continuing to stir. When the cheeses begin to melt, add the cavatelli while continuing to stir. Once the cavatelli is well coated, add half of the Parmesan (1/4 cup) and stir. Add corn while continuing to stir (it should go in frozen). Salt and pepper to taste. Add mozzarella and stir.

When thoroughly mixed, transfer to a 3 qt. buttered or greased casserole dish and bake uncovered for 35-40 minutes or until bubbly.

Remove from oven and cover with sliced tomatoes and the rest of the Parmesan cheese.

Bake for about 15 more minutes.

Let stand 10 minutes before eating.

Emily Farris is the author of Casserole Crazy: Hot Stuff for Your Oven and founder of New York’s Annual Casserole Party. When not slaving over casseroles in her tiny Brooklyn kitchen, she edits Nerve's culture blog, Scanner.