Casseroles suffer from a somewhat unglamorous reputation. You won’t find tuna casserole on the menu at any self-respecting restaurant, or a cheese-and-broccoli bake. These dishes are almost exclusively enjoyed in the domestic realm, conjuring images of a ’50s-era homemaker in a poofy tulle skirt and fancy apron pulling a steaming tray of something delicious out of the oven, likely containing cream of mushroom soup and a generous layer of cheese.
This old-fashioned vignette is precisely what makes a warm pan of blended comestibles deeply appealing. You don’t have to waste any energy consuming your dinner’s separate components one at a time — just mix them all together to begin with, because that’s how it ends up in your stomach anyway. It’s easy to see why I adore casseroles: They’re simple, they’re comforting and they’re oh-so-homey. They deserve a spot on your table and in your belly.
The casseroles I have known and loved are the humblest creations with cheap ingredients and a modest investment of prep time. They rely on canned or frozen ingredients, held together with creamy condensed soup or perhaps a bit of flour and egg, and are usually some savory combination of starch-vegetable-meat-cheese. (The melty cheese topping is extremely important on a casserole, by the way. You may skimp on other elements but not, for heaven’s sake, the cheese.)
I am pretty sure that the most fun I’ve had in going through my mother’s and grandmother’s old recipes is discovering yellowed, slightly brittle index cards containing step-by-step directions for beloved casseroles, corners worn from use and unidentifiable stains obscuring the measurements. I imagine these formidable women who raised me being tired and in a rush after a long day and relying on this tried-and-true recipe for a quick, hearty meal that will provide not only dinner with second helpings but also lunch the next day.
With that in mind, I have sorted through recipes for Broccoli Surprise, Chicken and Broccoli Au Gratin, Spinach Casserole, Rice Hot Dish, Beef Casserole, Green Bean Casserole, Tuna Noodle Stroganoff, Scrambled Egg Casserole and something mysteriously called Frazzly Ann featuring ground beef, noodles, tomatoes, corn, peppers and two kinds of olives, with specific instructions to add plenty of cheese on top. I would make this in a heartbeat but my family can’t countenance green olives and my husband despises corn, a state of affairs that I find endlessly baffling. To avoid having things thrown at me at the dinner table, I settled on Chicken Strata, with its vaguely European sounding name but thoroughly American ingredients.
Cube 8 slices of slightly stale white or sourdough bread. Save crumbs, if there are any. Combine 3 cups diced cooked chicken (this is a great way to use up leftover roast chicken), ½ cup chopped onions, ½ cup chopped bell peppers (I used red for color), ½ cup chopped celery, ½ cup mayonnaise or sour cream and spread over cubed bread. The original recipe only mentions mayonnaise, but I think mayonnaise is faintly revolting, so I substituted sour cream with a dollop of mayo thrown in for good measure. I imagine Greek yogurt would also be just fine. Because the recipe was utterly lacking in any spices, I also added thyme, sage, rosemary, lemon pepper and a dash of salt. I wondered for a moment whether to toss in some marinated artichoke hearts and chopped fresh basil, but restrained myself. I sampled the mixture at this point and it was yummy enough that I almost stopped right there and just made chicken salad sandwiches.
Next, combine 1 can cream of mushroom soup with 2 beaten eggs and ½ cup milk, then pour over the top of the chicken mixture. Cover and chill in the fridge for a few hours or overnight. I was inclined to skip this step because it doesn’t fit the classic casserole requirement that it should thrown together at the last minute, which is exactly how I like to do things. However, I decided for the sake of posterity I would follow the directions, just this once. I think the chilling time enhances this dish because it allows the chicken, cream and spices to soak into the bread. As I was making it, I considered that it would be an excellent make-ahead meal for guests with comfortably low expectations — people who, like me, are delighted by modest pleasures.
Heat oven to 325 degrees and, just before baking, sprinkle grated cheddar cheese over the top and over that a layer of reserved breadcrumbs or panko Japanese-style bread crumbs (they crisp up better when cooking). Bake for 1 hour. If you prefer your cheese just melted rather than bubbly and browned around the edges, don’t add the cheese and breadcrumbs until the last 10 minutes of cooking.
We ate this on a cool, rainy day and it hit the spot. The fresh herbs I’d added were a toothsome touch. What’s more, we had it for lunch again the next afternoon. A casserole may not be considered gourmet cuisine but, in my opinion, when paired with a hunk of crusty bread, a salad and a well-earned adult beverage, it’s as good as a feast.