What I wouldn’t give right now for some tater tot hotdish.
That’s what I found myself thinking just a few days into the stay-at-home directive. It might have had something to do with the fact that, as I write, I am sequestered in my childhood home in rural Wisconsin, where church basement comforts like tater tot hotdish and its ilk are a constant. I recall, with absolutely zero fondness, the amorphous blob that was unceremoniously plopped down on my grade school cafeteria tray: a beige-gray mixture of lukewarm tater tots, barely seasoned ground beef and canned green beans encased in gelatinous cream of mushroom soup.
And yet, there I was, day whatever of the apocalypse, longing for a taste of that much-maligned, often-mocked Midwestern staple.
I’m not alone. As the quarantine days have rolled into weeks, I’ve watched my social media feeds fill with images of friends baking tedious breads for the first time. Virtual cooking clubs are sprouting up. The other day, I got an invite to a recipe-exchange forum. This return to home cooking says to me that Americans are finding solace in their kitchens. The simple act of preparing food, creating a finished product out of raw materials, gives us a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of control that we need now more than ever.
Casseroles are the ultimate comfort food—relatively easy, generally nourishing one-pan meals that can feed a family. They’re the kind of dish perfect for newly minted home chefs unaccustomed to preparing anything beyond a bowl of cereal or weary parents whose responsibilities now include home-schooling. The humble casserole has made its return. Thank goodness.
Casseroles rose to prominence in the Nuclear era when housewives began turning to convenience cooking with processed and packaged food. All you needed was a pound of meat, cream of mushroom soup and canned green beans to get dinner going. But the history of the casserole stretches back much farther.
The word “casserole” was born in the 1600s in France, derived from older Provencal and Latin words. It literally translates to “sauce-pan,” which, at that time, was a deep dish used to cook something in. Originally, a casserole referred to the physical cookware rather than whatever meal was prepared in it. By this definition, casseroles as we know them today have been prepared for centuries in various cultures the world over without anyone referring to them as such. We might not think of Spanish paella, Greek moussaka or Italian lasagna as casseroles, but in fact, they are the originals.
The casserole of today does not have to be the green bean casserole or the tater tot hotdish of church basements past. We spoke to three local chefs about what the tradition of casserole means to them and how it can be a comfort in these trying times.
Vaughn Good, chef and co-owner at Fox and Pearl
“My grandmother would make casseroles all the time,” says chef Vaughn Good, who owns and operates Fox and Pearl with his wife Kristine Hull. “There’s minimal prep work, and it’s an easy way for someone to feed a lot of people. My grandmother did that a lot, and I remember watching her cook. She always had this collection of community spiral-bound cookbooks, you know, from church and stuff, and they were full of casseroles.”
At his Westside restaurant (which we named 2019 Restaurant of the Year), Good pays homage to Midwestern cooking traditions. Over an open hearth in the main dining room, guests can observe Good and his team smoking ham. In his basement prep kitchen, there is a devoted charcuterie station. On a busy night, guests crowd around the marble horseshoe bar, sipping natural wine and enjoying Good’s sublime fried chicken or his signature foie gras and pork sausage.
Of course, right now, there are no busy nights. Most of Fox and Pearl’s staff has been furloughed in light of the pandemic. Good has kept on a skeleton crew to help with to-go orders, and he has also launched the Fox and Pearl Mercantile, an online shop stocked with take-and-bake meals, produce, dairy, proteins and other provisions, all available for curbside pick-up.
“When we started doing take-out orders, we had to produce leftovers that we needed to move through, so the idea partly came from there,” Good says. “Right now, restaurants are in such a bind. We’re finding any way we can to bump up our ticket averages. It’s like swimming with your hands tied behind your back.”
The Fox and Pearl Mercantile, Good says, is also a way to provide other options to people who might not want to go into a grocery store and likewise can’t order take-out for every meal. “I think there’s a good portion of the Midwest that knows how to live out of a garden and cook for themselves,” he says. “We’re adaptable and tough people.”
Good’s recipe is a take on the traditional French cassoulet, a slow-cooked dish with meat, pork skin and white beans.
Vaughn’s Good Gratin
Prep time: 5-10 minutes
Cook time: 25-30 minutes
Yield: 4-6 servings
1 pound collard greens, stems and ribs removed (about two bunches)
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup smoked sausage (We use smoked chorizo)
1/4 cup bacon, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 poblano pepper, seeded and diced
2 cans (3 cups cooked) white beans (reserve cooking liquid)
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 teaspoon toasted coriander
1 tablespoon lemon zest
Kosher salt and fresh black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1. In a large pot of boiling salted water (it should taste like sea water), blanch collard greens until tender.
2. Preheat oven to 475°. Rub the inside of a 12-inch gratin dish or cast-iron Dutch oven with ½ tablespoon butter and set aside.
3. Over medium-high heat, pan-sear sausages and set aside. In the same pan, cook bacon and set aside. In the same pan, sauté garlic, onion and poblano in the bacon fat until tender and fragrant. Add blanched collard greens and remove from heat.
4. Place vegetable mixture in a large mixing bowl. Add cooked white beans, sausage chunks, bacon, parsley, toasted coriander, lemon zest, salt, pepper, Parmigiano and enough of the bean cooking liquid to moisten the mix.
5. Spread mix into reserved gratin dish. Top with breadcrumbs and more Parmigiano if desired.
6. Cover with foil and bake for 25-30 minutes. Remove foil and brown the dish for another 5-10 minutes before serving.
Notes: This is a versatile recipe and can be adapted for whatever you have on hand. If you don’t have collard greens, any kind of heartier braised green will work, like kale, mustard greens or spinach. If you don’t have fresh herbs, substitute dried. (If you’re going to substitute dried for fresh, cut the measurement by half.) Instead of coriander, you can use any kind of toasted seed, such as cumin or fennel.
Kozeta Kreka, chef-owner at Paros Estiatorio and Cozy’s Café
When I first tried the moussaka at Paros Estiatorio in Leawood, I knew it was special. Layers of eggplant, spiced beef and bechamel came together in a dish full of old-world heart. This Greek dish has origins in the Balkans and the Middle East, but the modern version served at Paros Estiatorio features a French influence—the bechamel—that was incorporated into the recipe in the 1920s.
Kozeta “Cozy” Kreka, the Greek chef who owns Paros Estiatorio and Cozy’s Café with her family, prepares her great-grandmother’s recipe for moussaka. It’s not something she shares with anyone who’s not related by blood. But her pastitsio, a dish commonly referred to as Greek lasagna, shares similar ingredients and has the added benefit of an easier prep.
“Pastitsio for me is very special,” Kreka says. “It’s tradition for my family. Growing up, once a week we did spanakopita and pastitsio. In most Greek households, the pastitsio is very popular all year round. In the summer, my family did it without ground beef and in winter we did it heavier—and always, of course, feta cheese was involved.”
Kreka began cooking when she was just nine years old, following her mother around the kitchen. “My mom got it from her mom and so on. I’m fifty-five and I’ve been making these recipes, this pastitsio, for forty or forty-five years,” she says.
Pastitsio, Kreka says, is the original Greek casserole.
“In every cuisine in the world, casserole is part of the menu,” she says. “The Greeks do these kinds of casseroles. In the Midwest sometimes it’s hotdish, and the French, they call it something else. At the end of the day, it’s generations before us that invented it, using all the vegetables they had in the kitchen and trying to make something comfortable.”
Right now, guests can order Kreka’s moussaka and pastitsio for take-out from Paros Estiatorio, along with several other menu favorites, but Kreka is anxious to re-open her doors to the public. “It’s not just cooking the food for me. I want to host people. I want them to feel special when they come here,” she says.
Prep time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
Yield: 8-10 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 clove garlic, diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 pounds ground beef
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 16-ounce cans diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 sprig fresh thyme
3 bay leaves
1 pound bucatini pasta (or any pasta you have)
1/2 pound feta cheese (or Parmesan, gruyere or your favorite cheese)
Bechamel sauce ingredients:
1 cup butter
1 cup flour
5 cups whole milk
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. In a large pot, add olive oil, onion, garlic, salt and pepper. Saute for 5 minutes over medium heat.
2. Add ground beef and cook for another 10 minutes, until meat is browned.
3. Add tomato paste and diced tomatoes. (“I use fresh tomatoes in the restaurant,” Kreka says, but canned is fine.) Add cinnamon and stir together, then add fresh thyme and bay leaves.
4. Bring to a boil, then simmer over low heat and cook slowly, about 1 hour and 30 minutes. Once meat is done cooking, remove bay leaves and thyme.
5. While the meat is cooking, prepare the noodles. Boil noodles with salted water, cooking to al dente. (“I always cook the pasta two minutes less than what the box says,” Kreka advises.)
6. Drain pasta, toss with a little bit of olive oil (to keep it from sticking together) and put it aside.
7. Preheat the oven to 350°. Drizzle olive oil on a 12-by-18-inch dish and add the noodles, spreading evenly in the pan.
8. Crack eggs onto the pasta, then mix together in the pan. Add feta cheese and mix again.
9. Add a layer of meat, spreading it until you can’t see the pasta.
10. Add more cheese, then bechamel sauce (recipe below), then more cheese.
11. Bake for 1 hour until the top is golden brown. Let cool for 15 minutes. (Don’t cut it before 15 minutes or it will open up and get messy.) Leftovers will keep in the fridge for three to four days.
1. Melt butter in a medium saucepan, then add flour and cook on low to medium heat for 4-6 minutes, stirring constantly.
2. Add milk slowly, continuing to stir. Bring to a boil, then lower heat.
3. Add salt and pepper and cook for 4-6 minutes more before removing from heat and allowing to cool.
Chris Goode, owner of Ruby Jean’s
Chris Goode has always maintained that comfort food can—and should—be good for you. That’s the foundation of Ruby Jean’s Juicery. Goode opened his first juicery in 2015 and currently has three locations, all offering cold-pressed juices, fresh smoothies and plenty of vegan and gluten-free meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, however, Goode has closed all storefronts except the location at 3000 Troost Ave., which is taking to-go orders for pickup only.
“Even before this happened, it was important that, no matter what, we maintained the ability to treat our bodies well,” Goode says, “and the importance of doing so at a time like this is heightened. We need to boost our immune systems because we need to protect ourselves from the inside out.”
Good for the body, good for the soul—that’s the inspiration behind Goode’s brand. He named the business after his beloved grandmother, whose kitchen was always swirling with the heady aromas of her favorite soul food dishes, like macaroni and cheese bakes and casseroles loaded with heavy cream and butter.
“Unfortunately, the soul food that she grew up on and fed us was unhealthy, and it led to her early death with Type 2 diabetes,” Goode says. “Everything we do is in her honor. We want to channel her amazing cooking ability. Soul food is in our blood and on our menu, but we flip that idea of what soul food is on its head because it’s gotta be good for you.”
Soulful Vegan Shepherd’s Pie
Prep time: 25-30 minutes
Cook time: 35-45 minutes
Yield: 12 servings
Sweet potato topping ingredients:
5 medium to large skinned sweet potatoes
1/2 cup almond milk
2 tablespoons coconut oil (substitute with butter if not keeping vegan)
3 tablespoons agave syrup
2-3 pinches nutmeg
3 cups Brussels sprouts, halved
2 medium-size carrots, diced
2 small yellow onions, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons blackening seasoning (mix of cayenne, garlic salt, black pepper, paprika, dehydrated onion, dried oregano, dried parsley)
1 cup peas
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 cups kale, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons olive oil for sauteing
1/4 cup gluten-free flour
1 cup veggie stock or broth
2 cups almond milk
Sweet potato topping directions:
1. Fill a large pot with salted water and boil skinned sweet potatoes until tender all the way through, about 15 minutes.
2. Remove from water and let cool.
3. Place potatoes in a large mixing bowl. Add almond milk, coconut oil, agave syrup and nutmeg. Using an electric mixer, whip together until completely smooth.
1. Preheat oven to 350° and spray 16-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.
2. In a large pan, saute Brussels sprouts and carrots in olive oil for 5 minutes. Add onions and garlic along with blackening seasoning and cook another 5 minutes. Add peas, pepper and kale and cook another 4 minutes.
3. In small mixing bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup olive oil and flour to make a roux. Combine with sauté mix and cook another 4-5 minutes, until there is no visible flour.
4. Mix in veggie stock and almond milk, stirring constantly until gravy thickens, about 4-5 minutes. Pour mixture into baking dish.
5. Spread sweet potato topping on top of veggie mixture. Place dish in the oven and bake for 35-45 minutes, until golden brown and bubbling slightly.