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Casseroles - Main courses for baby boomers in the 50’s, these classic American dishes are easy to prepare, low cost and nutritious

ROSE DOSTI, Times Staff Writer

Remember casseroles? Remember when they faded away, never to return, or so it seemed?

Nostalgia for the ‘50s has brought casseroles back.

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Casseroles may not last as part of the hip culinary scene beyond the next season, but they are classically American enough to warrant your attention, especially if you are planning a nostalgic ‘50s evening or trying your hand at the stuff that became a rage with the advent of canned foods. A better reason might simply be that you are interested in easy, low-cost and nutritious cooking.

Casseroles, after all, are generally loaded with carbohydrates, which, say health experts, should be increased in our diets. Carbohydrates should make up 60% of the total calories we ingest. Protein should provide 10% of total calories consumed each day, and fat (inherent in food or consumed separately) 30%.

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So meet the casserole--the all-American meal-in-a-dish that lured skilled cooks of the early 1900s away from the art of scratch recipes to the mechanics of convenience cooking, thus launching a new category in American-style cuisine.

Casseroles could, conversely, lure today’s convenience cooks back into the kitchen, if only to open a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup and throw a handful of noodles, cashews and celery stubs into a dish that would become that evening’s--and maybe even tomorrow’s--supper.

There is really nothing to making a casserole, and the taste often belies its humble origins, low cost and minimal effort. The only planning needed is for baking time, which usually is from 20 minutes to one hour, depending on the type of casserole.

American-style casserole cooking reached its peak of popularity in the 1950s when food companies, whose marketing research allowed them to estimate the kitchen skills of their customers, promoted their products by offering recipes with simple instructions. These dishes were based on good old one-two-three-ingredient recipes that convenience food cooks could easily master.

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Many recipe favorites appeared on the labels of canned or boxed soups, vegetables, macaroni, meats, fish and poultry. Innovative American cooks, however, improvised, giving breath and richness to dishes that often originated in the cold, clinical setting of a food company laboratory kitchen. The roster of American casseroles is endless, with many variations on a single theme.

Here’s our selection of the old-time classic casseroles you definitely should meet--some of them innovations, others straight from the boxtop of a food product. Origins of many have been lost, but the dishes go on.

Turkey Tetrazzini arrived on the casserole scene via Continental restaurant chefs who introduced the dish, probably in honor of a client or a chef named Tetrazzini, who might have inspired or originated the dish. To this day, many Continental restaurants serve this dish of turkey, chicken or seafood, layered with spaghetti. The nutritious Tetrazzini has not only appeared on macaroni product labels, but it has been a buffet favorite of hostesses over the years.

Another buffet-table favorite is Hawaiian Chicken, which calls for chicken mixed with pineapple in a honey-Sherry sauce. The casserole is usually accompanied by--but not cooked with--rice.

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The tamale casserole featured here has enjoyed a long and honored place among Californians exposed to the flavors of Mexican cuisine. This casserole, however, is an Americanized variation on the tamale theme. Layers of cornmeal, ground beef, corn, olives and cheese make up the nutritious and relatively low-cost casserole. It’s a perfect do-ahead dish for entertaining or family meal planning.

Chicken-Cashew Casserole has as many variations as there are cooks. Our files are filled with variations of chicken-cashew casseroles. Our choice is one in which sour cream forms a part of the sauce. Cheddar cheese tops the casserole, but you can use any soft or semi-hard cheese. As you proceed with the recipe, you might add an ingredient or two of your own choosing.

The potato chip casserole probably goes back to a test kitchen at a potato chip or canned food company. This extra-easy casserole combines mushroom soup with potato chips and canned tuna for a satisfying, nutritious meal that costs pennies. If you are concerned about excessive salt intake, use salt-free potato chips.

Mom’s More Casserole is a typical example of a family casserole containing a balance of carbohydrates (noodles, corn and olives) and protein (ground beef and cheese) at a low cost.

Another Variation

A variation on the “more” casserole is the Johnny Mousetti (also spelled Marzetti or Mazzetti), whose origin remains a mystery. The Mousetti is also made with noodles, ground beef, corn and cheese.

An Oriental twist to the familiar tuna casserole teams tuna with macaroni, water chestnuts and soy sauce. The binding liquid is canned celery soup and the topping is crispy noodles. Sound easy?

Lowly Spaghetti Casserole, also known as sour cream noodle bake or noodle casserole, which had made the rounds among budget-minded family cooks for a few decades, went high-brow when we encountered it a decade ago at a society table. Lee De Witte, a well-know Los Angeles hostess, served the delicious casserole as a side dish to a roast at one of her parties.

You can virtually make up your own casserole concoction, using cooked noodles, macaroni, spaghetti, rice, kasha (buckwheat) or bulgur (cracked wheat) combined with some type of leftover meat, fish or poultry or quick-cooking ground beef, turkey or lamb. The origins of many casseroles, after all, stem from a cook’s innovative urge.

TURKEY TETRAZZINI

1/2 pound spaghetti

1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced

1/2 cup butter or margarine

1/3 cup flour

2 cups turkey stock or chicken bouillon

1 cup dry white wine

3/4 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon celery salt

Salt, pepper

4 cups cubed, cooked turkey

1/2 cup fine dry bread crumbs

Grated Parmesan cheese

Cook spaghetti in boiling salted water until barely tender. Drain and rinse with hot water. Saute mushrooms in 1/4 cup butter for 5 minutes. Add remaining butter and when melted blend in flour. Add turkey stock, wine, milk and celery salt. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook and stir until thickened and smooth.

In 4-quart casserole, arrange layers of spaghetti, turkey and sauce, ending with thin layer of spaghetti. Sprinkle with crumbs and cheese. Bake at 375 degrees 35 to 45 minutes or until brown. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

HAWAIIAN CHICKEN

1 medium chicken, cut up

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

1/4 cup green pepper strips

1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained

1/4 cup prepared mustard

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup light rum or Sherry

Paprika

Arrange chicken, skin side up, in shallow greased baking dish. Melt butter in saucepan. Stir in green pepper, pineapple, mustard, honey and rum. Spoon mixture over chicken and sprinkle with paprika. Bake at 400 degrees 45 to 60 minutes or until tender. Makes 4 to 5 servings.

CALIFORNIA TAMALE CASSEROLE

3/4 cup yellow cornmeal

1 1/2 cups milk

1 egg, beaten

1 pound lean ground beef

1 package chili seasoning mix

2 teaspoons seasoned salt

1 (1-pound) can tomatoes

1 (17-ounce) can whole kernel corn, drained

1 (7 1/2-ounce) can pitted black olives, drained

1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

Mix cornmeal, milk and egg in 2 1/2-quart casserole. Brown meat in skillet, stirring to keep crumbly. Add chili seasoning mix, salt, tomatoes, corn and olives and mix well. Stir into cornmeal mixture.

Bake at 350 degrees 1 hour 15 minutes. Sprinkle cheese over top and bake until cheese melts, about 5 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

CHICKEN-CASHEW CASSEROLE

1 cup dairy sour cream

1/4 teaspoon oregano

2 cups cubed cooked chicken

6 ounces noodles, cooked

1/2 cup sliced black olives

3/4 cup sliced mushrooms

1/4 cup chopped green pepper

1/4 cup chopped cashews

1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

Blend sour cream and oregano in large bowl. Blend in chicken, noodles, olives, mushrooms, green pepper and cashews. Turn into 1 1/2-quart casserole. Sprinkle cheese over top and bake at 350 degrees 25 to 30 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

POTATO CHIP CASSEROLE

1 (10 3/4-ounce) can mushroom soup

3/4 cup milk

2 teaspoons finely minced onion

Salt, pepper

2 cups coarsely crushed potato chips

1 (7-ounce) can tuna, drained

Potato chips for garnish

Blend mushroom soup and milk. Add onion and bring slowly to boiling point, stirring constantly. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Arrange half crushed potato chips in bottom of greased casserole. Top with half tuna. Repeat layers. Pour mushroom soup mixture over all and garnish top with whole potato chips. Bake at 350 degrees 25 minutes or until thoroughly heated and lightly browned. Makes 6 servings.

MOM’S MORE

1 pound ground beef

2 onions, chopped

1 tablespoon chili powder

Salt, pepper

2 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce

1 (10-ounce) can red chile sauce

1 (8-ounce) can kernel corn, drained

8 ounces egg noodles, cooked

1 (2 1/4-ounce) can pitted black olives

Sliced cheese

Brown beef with onions, chile powder in heat-proof casserole. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Drain excess fat. Add tomato and chile sauces, corn, noodles and olives. Top with cheese slices and bake at 300 degrees 1 hour. Makes 6 servings.

JOHNNY MOUSETTI

2 tablespoons oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 tablespoons chopped green pepper

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 1/2 pounds ground beef

8 ounces wide noodles

1 (1-pound) can cream-style corn

1 (10 3/4-ounce) can tomato soup

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup shredded American cheese

Heat oil in skillet. Saute onion, green pepper and garlic until tender. Add meat and cook until it loses its red color. Cook noodles in boiling, salted water until tender and drain. Mix noodles with corn, tomato soup and sauce. Add meat mixture, salt and pepper. Toss to blend. Turn into 3-quart casserole. Sprinkle with shredded cheese and bake at 350 degrees 1 hour. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

TUNA ORIENTAL

4 ounces macaroni

1 (7-ounce) can tuna

1 cup chopped celery

1 can celery soup

1/2 cup sliced water chestnuts

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons chopped pimiento

2/3 cup milk

1 (3-ounce) can Chinese noodles or 1 (3-ounce) can French fried onions

Cook macaroni in boiling salted water 6 minutes. Drain well. Combine macaroni, tuna, celery, soup, water chestnuts, soy sauce, pimiento and milk in 1 1/2-quart casserole. Mix well. Sprinkle noodles over top. Bake at 350 degrees 25 minutes. Makes 6 servings.

LEE’S SPAGHETTI CASSEROLE

1 (10 3/4-ounce) can cream of mushroom soup

1 1/2 soup cans milk

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Seasoned salt

Sugar

1 (12-ounce) package thin spaghetti

1 pint sour cream

1 1/2 pounds shredded sharp American cheese

1 onion, grated

1 cup round butter cracker crumbs

1/2 cup butter or margarine

Blend soup, milk, pepper, seasoned salt and sugar to taste. Set aside.

Bring enough water to cover spaghetti to boil. Add spaghetti remove from heat and let stand until spaghetti becomes pliable, about 10 minutes. Drain.

Place layer of spaghetti in 15-inch baking pan. Spread with thin layer of sour cream, sprinkle thick layer of cheese and top with layer of onion. Repeat layers until all ingredients are used.

Pour soup mixture over spaghetti mixture. Saute crumbs in butter until golden. Sprinkle over casserole and bake at 325 degrees 1 hour until casserole is bubbly and spaghetti is done. Makes 10 servings.

TRIPLE BEAN BAKE

1 cup chopped onions

1/2 cup chopped celery

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

1 (1-pound) can pork and beans in tomato sauce

1 (1-pound) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained

2 (10-ounce) packages frozen lima beans, thawed

1/2 cup catsup

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

1 1/2 cups (6-ounces) shredded Provolone or Jack cheese

Saute onions and celery in butter until tender, about 5 minutes. Add pork and beans, kidney beans and lima beans, catsup, brown sugar, vinegar, mustard, salt, garlic powder and 1 cup cheese. Pour into 2-quart casserole.

Bake at 350 degrees, uncovered, until hot and bubbly, about 45 minutes. Remove from oven. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheese. Let stand 5 minutes to allow cheese to melt. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Food Styling by Minnie Bernardino and Donna Deane / Accessories from Terrafirma Ceramics


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