Like Rodney Dangerfield, the casserole gets no respect.
To many, the word conjures up church basements and Pyrex pans filled with bland blends of mushy noodles, cream soups, mayonnaise, sour cream and cheese.
But why? "Casserole" is a broad term that applies to any food baked and served in the same dish. As such, it describes not only the bourgeois recipes printed on soup cans but also culinary sophisticates such as cassoulet and tagine.
Casseroles deserve a place in the home cook's repertoire. Not only are they the ultimate comfort food, browned and bubbling on a cold winter's evening, but they also are economical, stretching meat with the addition of pasta or rice. They can be prepared in advance and freeze nicely. A typical 9- by 13-inch pan usually makes enough for two meals, and leftovers are easy to reheat in the microwave.
One rap against casseroles over the years has been their artery-clogging combinations of hamburger, sour cream, eggs and cheese -- lots of cheese. But with a few tweaks, casseroles can be part of a healthy diet.
Reducing is the first line of defense. For example, the amount of butter in a recipe can be cut by one-fourth with no discernible difference in taste. And if a casserole recipe calls for salt, it can always be omitted.
Second, learn to substitute for the high-fat, high-sodium offenders. Casseroles are a forgiving bunch. Among the suitable substitutes:
Meat. Use meat that is at least 90 percent lean. When cooking with turkey, look for packages labeled "breast." Ground turkey that isn't breast meat may contain skin and dark meat with more fat and calories. Soy vegetable crumbles (look in the supermarket freezer case) can stand in for ground beef in any casserole recipe.
Starches. You can triple the fiber in a casserole by using whole-wheat pasta in place of egg noodles. Use more fibrous brown rice in place of white rice. If family members, particularly children, have issues with the darker-hued whole-grain noodles or rice, start by substituting whole-grain for one-fourth of the regular noodles. Then increase the proportion each time you make the casserole.
Vegetables. Colorful vegetables not only boost the nutrition of casseroles but also add visual interest to the typically beige dishes. Cooks can usually get away with including 50 percent more vegetables than a recipe calls for. If a recipe doesn't call for vegetables, add some. Tough veggies such as broccoli and carrots may need to be precooked (cut them in uniform chunks), while corn and peas can be folded into the casserole right before baking.
If you want to be really sneaky, mix in baby food. Two (4-ounce) jars of puréed carrots, green beans, squash or sweet potatoes disappear easily into a 9- by 13-inch casserole. Baby food adds fiber and vitamins without any lumps that may raise suspicions among young eaters.
Sauces. Without a sauce to bind everything together, casseroles would be dry indeed. Sauce mainstays include cheese and other dairy products, as well as canned cream soups. Light or reduced-fat sour cream, mayonnaise, milk, cheese and canned soup can be substituted for full-fat products with little difference in taste or texture.
Be careful using fat-free products, however. Fat-free cheese does not melt well, and fat-free sour cream or skim milk might turn a casserole watery. Another option is to use a full-fat product with a more assertive flavor, but less of it. For example, instead of 2 cups regular Cheddar cheese, substitute 1 1/2 cups sharp Cheddar, which has more flavor.
DRESS THEM UP
One criticism of casseroles is that their flavors tend to be unadventuresome. To jazz up a family favorite:
For processed or mild Cheddar cheese, substitute smoked Gouda or other more flavorful cheese.
For plain egg noodles, substitute tri-color pasta wheels or fun squiggly shapes.
For vegetables, use wild mushrooms instead of canned button mushrooms, and edamame instead of peas.
For a flavor boost, try red pepper sauce; lemon or yuzu juice; wine or sherry; or ethnic flavorings such as curry, hoisin sauce and feta cheese.
For the cracker-crumb topping, substitute finely chopped nuts, wheat germ, sunflower seeds or vinegar-flavored potato chips.
Slightly undercook pasta for casseroles. Noodles will continue to cook in the oven.
When making recipes ahead, store casserole fillings and sauces separately.
Bring prepared casserole to room temperature before baking.
Allow casserole to cool a few minutes before serving. This allows flavors to meld and the layers to bind together.
To free up casserole dishes for other uses, line the dish with heavy-duty aluminum foil and spray with cooking spray. Assemble casserole in pan and freeze as directed. Once frozen, use foil to lift out casserole and wrap tightly. When it's time to serve, put casserole back in the dish and follow recipe directions for thawing and cooking.
A pan 8- by 8-inches makes 11/2 quarts and 4 to 6 servings
A pan 7- by 11-inches makes 2 quarts and 6 to 8 servings
A pan 9- by 13-inches makes 3 quarts or 8 to 12 servings