CULINARY: Casserole Cookery
by Nealey Dozier
When I am asked to describe southern home cooking, casseroles are usually the first thing to come to mind. Growing up, my mother heroically cooked supper for our family—including my father and two sisters—every night of the week. She often rotated through her same signature dishes, and casseroles were her very best. Poppy seed chicken, beef stroganoff, chicken in the garden, and my all-time favorite, turkey tetrazzini were all granted VIP status. Those quick recipes were her go-to when she needed dinner on the table and had no extra seconds, or sanity, to spare.
I was confident as a child that my mother was an exceptional home cook. It is a general consensus among most folks that “your” mamma’s recipe is hands down the best. (In fact, I face this dilemma all too often as I attempt to feed my fiancé; his mother Tina’s one woman kitchen show is a tough act to follow.) It was only after I pursued a culinary career that I discovered all my previous notions about my mother’s cooking were false. Turns out, she is not such a great chef after all.
On one recent occasion, I watched in horror as she hacked away at an onion using a dull knife and a cheap glass cutting board. I hastily bought her a razor-sharp Wustof knife and Boos chopping block, for my own safety if nothing else. Upon mentioning her knife skills (or lack there-of), she only responded that she never claimed to know what she was doing. Imagine my surprise! To think, she’d been pulling the wool over our eyes all that time.
So you see, I have casseroles—specifically Campbell’s “Cream of” soups—to thank for any decent family dinner I enjoyed growing up. Without the aid of that famous wannebe béchamel, the Dozier clan might as well have gone hungry. Okay, perhaps I am being a tad bit dramatic, but in the age of feminism in the eighties and nineties, cooking from a can became synonymous with female power. The more minutes my mother shaved off feeding time meant more minutes for her to work. (Or at least get her nails done.)
I have long thrown out canned convenience foods from my pantry, but I will always make the recipes of my youth with a heaping dash of nostalgia. Now I put my effort into cooking meals from scratch, including all those comforting casseroles. It didn’t take long to develop an all-purpose sauce that makes assembling a wholesome one-dish dinner a cinch. I call the recipe the “mother of all casseroles” because it lends itself to infinite flavor possibilities. And it just so happens to be delicious. Hopefully my future children will look back fondly and think, “Dang, mom was a really fantastic cook!” Hey, a girl can dream.
The Mother of All Casseroles (a.k.a. Ham and Linguine Casserole)
Recipe by Nealey Dozier, originally for The Kitchn
This recipe can be adapted to whatever flavors suit your fancy, or whatever ingredients happen to be in your fridge. The options are endless!
4 cups cooked and diced ham
1 large red bell pepper, chopped
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
5 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
3 cups milk (2% or whole), scalded
1/3 cup chicken stock or broth
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, divided
3/4 cup shredded parmesan cheese, divided
1 teaspoon mustard powder
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 pound linguine noodles, broken into thirds and cooked al dente
Preheat oven to 350°F. Add a couple tablespoons of canola or olive oil into a large skillet. Over medium heat, sweat onions until softened. Add red and green peppers and cook until they just become tender, about 5 minutes.
In a sauce pan, melt butter on medium-low heat. Add flour and whisk until smooth (and flour taste is cooked out), about three minutes. Pour in scalded milk and chicken broth. Cook, constantly stirring, until thickened. Mix in 1/2 cup of cheddar and 1/2 cup of Parmesan and stir until melted and creamy. Remove from the heat and add mustard powder, salt, and pepper.
Combine sauce with ham, linguine, and vegetables. Taste and add more salt and pepper if desired. Pour the mixture into a large casserole dish. Sprinkle remaining cheddar and parmesan on top and cook until warm and bubbling, approximately 35 to 45 minutes.
Note: To reheat, cut the casserole into large squares. Pour about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water into the seams and around the edges. (This allows moisture to steam the casserole instead of drying it out. The slices will “cook” themselves back together and the water will evaporate.) Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350°F until hot and bubbly.
We are thrilled to welcome Nealy Dozier to The Southern C team of contributors! You can read more about Nealey and her ode to all of the (delicious) Southern things she loves at www.dixiecaviar.com