Making a Meal Out of (Almost) Nothing at All
By Anne Wolf Postic
Here we are. It’s winter, and we’re cold, tired, and still in recovery mode from the fun of the holidays. How were yours, by the way? I do hope they were merry and bright and that you were able to spend time with people you love who were on the same page — or respectful of your page — when it comes to vaccines, masking, dietary choices, the new Adele album, child-rearing, boxers or briefs, and any other hot topics that may have arisen. Actually, isn’t it time we canceled hot topics and just talked about something else? Thanks to the internet, which I love and hate, everything is controversial. People are delightfully unique, and I like it that way. Hot topics and the hot takes everyone seems to need to address them are socially isolating, and I’m over them. But I digress.
Eating regular meals at home is a great way to beat the winter blues, and casserole is a last-minute meal hero. You probably have enough things in your house to make one right this second. The quantities I’ll mention will make a casserole for five or six people but do feel free to reduce the amounts to make a smaller dish. Or…separate it into more than one dish and freeze the rest for a rainy day. You’ll be so happy you did!
Start with a casserole dish. Wasn’t that easy? It can be any shape you have. Grease it with butter or cooking spray or something else greasy. Next, forage in your kitchen for about eight cups worth of (edible) stuff: leftover meat from taco night, frozen, canned, or fresh vegetables, beans, pine nuts, the chicken fingers your toddler couldn’t finish, fruit (apples are good in stuffing, so why not casserole?), really anything you can eat. If pineapple cheese casserole is a thing, which it very much is, nothing is off-limits.
Fill your greased vegetable dish about three-quarters of the way full with the results of your search, all chopped and mixed together. Add enough rice, pasta, or cubes of bread (an excellent way to use up the stale stuff) to fill the dish just below the top. Don’t pack the ingredients into the dish. There should be enough space for the liquid in the next step to surround them.
Heat 1 1/4 cups (or one can) of cream soup. Cream of mushroom is my personal favorite, but any cream soup works. Remove the soup from heat and stir in 1/2 cup of mayonnaise (or sour cream or Greek yogurt or something similar) and 3/4 cup grated cheese. Season with salt, pepper, and any other seasonings you think might go with your dish.
Pour the liquid over ingredients in the casserole dish and top with about a half cup of something crunchy. Potato chip or cracker crumbs work, as do breadcrumbs, corn flakes, tortilla chips, or whatever else you might have lying around. The liquid doesn’t have to totally cover the solid ingredients, by the way. A half-inch or so of uncovered solid ingredients will add a nice layer of texture.
Bake the casserole for around 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Turn the oven up to broil and cook for an additional minute or two if you like the top crunchy. I sure do!
Remove the casserole from the oven and let it cool for 10 to 15 minutes, which will also allow it to set, making the whole thing easier to serve.
If you need inspiration for ingredients and seasoning, this is one of those times I love the internet. Just search for the main ingredients you plan to include, followed by “casserole” or even “soup.” You aren’t looking for a recipe, just some ideas about what might make what you have on hand into a delicious meal.
Will it be beautiful? Most likely not. My hat goes off to those food photographers who manage to make a casserole look pretty. It’s challenging and requires skill in selecting background colors and props, getting just the right light and angle, choosing a dish to complement a relatively unattractive meal, and the proverbial “more.” Photographing a casserole is more about creating a mood and conveying a feeling than showing off a beautiful dish.
That mood? Warm and inviting. A casserole is comforting, the perfect thing on a cold winter day when you think there’s nothing to eat. Add a salad, a few candles, and some pretty napkins…and those leftover bits and pieces from your very own kitchen just became an event. Enjoy!