A Food Column by Blaise Bahara
I should have warned you before dropping off the edge of the earth. Fall is the busiest time here and well, putting words to digital image got knocked off the list for a while.
The farm has settled into its winter slumber. The field is emptied, every last tomato, pepper and pumpkin harvested and processed. The irrigation lines are dismembered and stored under the apple trees to save from as much frost as possible. The earth is turned, which manages to considerably reduce the cucumber beetle population for the next season. The vineyard's brown trunks and cordons sit against the new, strangely bright green of the cover crop and the orchard, with its skeletal structure, brings to mind line after line of Radio City Rockettes. The peach trees have had their first spray and next is pruning. The hoop houses are abuzz with life. Tiny frogs keep warm. I think the barn cats go for them as a sort of pre-gopher appetizer. Leafy herbs and greens, carrots and beets growing at a snail's pace compared to summer but growing nonetheless. When the sun warms the tents, it feels as if you've stepped into the thick humidity of a life-size terrarium, which is a welcome change from the dry heat of the home.
For the multitude of holiday feasts, there is no shortage of roasted beasts and sugared sweets. We trundle, with small bites to whet appetites, starches of every kind and root vegetables galore to homes and offices, halls, barns and wineries. Each is unique but all have the same holiday feel of candles and greenery. They all sparkle. Smiles and greetings, the clinking of glasses. Let the festivities begin.
All of this, for us, winds down, no, that's not the right way to put it…it doesn't wind down, it screeches to a dead cold stop on January 1. Catering, as with almost every service industry business, goes to sleep or slows to a crawl in January and generally until Valentine's Day. It is the time we all rest, recuperate, binge-watch everything we missed, sort our mail, file our piled-up receipts, find lost socks and spend time with family and friends. In short, we do everything we've not been able to get done since, oh about, October!
One of those things we don't get a lot of during the busy months is actual cooking for ourselves. We eat whatever we're making for others, so when there are not others and Baby It's Cold Outside, what happens in our house? C.a.s.s.e.r.o.l.e.s! In Minnesota, they are called Hotdish and, there are actually carriers you can buy for them as you travel across town. You need only have wine, a hotdish carrier and a good pair of traveling slippers. It is imperative that you have all three. I have heard you can make a hotdish carrier out of a towel but, my friends, I've tried this and I honestly believe that unless you have Scandinavian blood in your veins, you are doomed. It did not go well. What anyone can do is have a stylin' pair of traveling slippers that you put on your feet once you have arrived and removed your boots. They tend to be roll-able, so they are really more thick socks with a lovely or funky pattern. And they must look good with the outfit. Black is always good. I once had pair that were wool on the bottom, velvet up the booty sides with a pompom-tipped tie-bow! I could have rocked those at the opera if needed! Do remember, as the Scandinavians say, there is no such thing as bad weather…only bad clothing.
Now, back to casseroles. To my mind, you need three things to make a tasty and lovely casserole; starch, meat and cheese. I'm sorry, yes, veggies can be added and should possibly be considered a fourth requirement but I won't judge if you won't.
Let's begin with the starch. Cooked pasta is classic. Is there a more perfect casserole than lasagna, golden brown and bubbling from the oven? Tuna Hotdish with fresh ginger, peas and egg noodles? Yes, please. Potatoes are good as well. Potatoes Au Gratin is undoubtedly classic. We have been known to add ham, sometimes diced sausage. One time we tried ground beef…that was not a winner. Of course, the casseroles made with tater tots or any other form of frozen ore-idas are popular. I believe I mentioned my Mother's use for the cubed ore-idas in a kraft cheesy-potato hotdish and I once knew a gent who smashed down tater tots, covered them with pre-diced ham, pre-shredded cheddar (from a bag, of course) and then layered on a can of cream of cheese soup. I sometimes wonder if he is still alive. Tortillas work for the Mexican Hotdish, which, unless it's empanadas, I'm sure makes most Mexican-Americans want to turn away as to not see what has been done to their native foods! For the record, I feel this way about most Americanized Italian food and especially Americanized lasagna. The struggle is real.
Now, meat. I'm sure a vegetarian would argue with me but I do feel it's necessary. Unless it's a Gratin that will be a side to a meat. However, if it is a meal unto itself, which is generally the point of these dishes, it needs meat. And frankly, any meat will do. My lasagna has lamb, beef and pork. Ham is classic. Bacon crumbles or sliced sausage…always. And fish, like tuna and salmon. We've even done a modified casserole with sliced potatoes, peas, carrots and sole baked on the top. It was tasty!
The cheese you choose need only go well with the other ingredients. The sky is the limit. I'm a big fan of gruyere, emmental or any strong swiss if the dish involves pork. Parmesan and Asiago on the Italian end and a pepper jack and cheddar combo can't be beat with tortillas, beans and chorizo. Mac & Cheese is actually a casserole and, by the grace of the heavens should never be made stove-top with some packet of nuclear-waste-colored powder. Go with a medley of gruyere, asiago and good old fashioned American because nothing melts better. For extra creaminess, add a bit of cream cheese. Grate some parmesan, pre-bake, on the top for good measure and a nice top crust.
The good thing about adding veggies such as peas or carrots is that it imparts both flavor and color. Carrots, peas, broccoli, sweet peppers are all good. Cauliflower, not so much. Now, you will need to add some liquid of your choosing. You can use a stock for a lighter dish. Whip up your own béchamel for your lasagna or even a penne with tomato sauce, Italian sausage and parmesan. That's right, throw it in there and bake it up! Soups work, it can't be denied. Cream of mushroom, chicken, cheese or asparagus are the go-to cans for many a busy home cook. Try to get the low sodium version if it exists. It helps you manage the salt in the final dish.
Choose your pan, round, square or rectangular to suit the look of your final product. Butter, oil or spray. If you make a béchamel, spread it on the bottom as the first layer. It will stop sticking and bubble up into the lower layer. Now, personally, I like to layer my ingredients in the dish. I somehow think the result is both more attractive and more tasty. However, if you are feeling the need to stir it all up in a bowl and pour it in, by all means, do so! What cannot be skipped is the topping. It should give the dish another texture. Hence, broken-up Ritz crackers on a tuna casserole or a thick layer of parmesan on lasagna or penne hotdish. Give it some crunch. Pop it in the oven and await the aroma of your bubbling ingredients melding into a beautifully cohesive meal. And I know you know this but, let it r.e.s.t once out of the oven. Give it at least 10, preferably 15 minutes. Yes, I know you are ravenous but if you cut into too soon, all you get is a big pile of goop! We eat with our eyes first and no one wants to eat goop.
I hope as your world slows just a little in the chilled air, as your gardens rest and your holiday shopping is wrapped up for another year, that you will have a bit time to concoct your own one-dish wonder. Have fun. Go crazy. If you use tasty ingredients, you can't go wrong. Light a fire, kick back and enjoy!