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THE HOME COOK : Where Have All the Casseroles Gone?

Whatever happened to the American casserole? The Ozzie and Harriet dinner centerpiece, the church supper covered-dish, all the versions of a meal-in-a-pot?

The standard American cookbook of the 1940s had a whole chapter given over to casserole dishes. In the late ‘40s, an all-time best seller came out called “Casserole Cookery,” written by Marian Tracy. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was followed by James Beard’s “Casserole Cookbook,” which also enjoyed very lively sales.

Beard wrote of the casserole (the word literally means a French earthenware cooking utensil, round or oval, with handles and a lid):

“It all began in France where peasant families--who regard a good meal and a good bank account with almost equal reverence--discovered that inexpensive odds and ends of food acquired an almost miraculous savor when oven-cooked slowly in earthenware pots. Because it can hold an entire meal in one container, it’s a godsend to beginning cooks, harried housewives and the millions of apartment-dwellers who are hampered by tiny kitchens and inadequate and cramped space. It’s perfect for dinner because the dish can be prepared in advance and, in most cases, will not suffer if left in the oven until everyone is ready to eat.”

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Casseroles became passe when canned and packaged soups and sauces, canned onion rings, corn flakes and so on became their main ingredients, replacing wholesome old-fashioned ingredients--when they were bastardized, in other words. Another cause of their demise was the rigid dogma of ‘70s and ‘80s cooks: “Fresh ingredients, quickly cooked.”

If we ever needed casseroles back, it is today. A casserole is a one-dish meal that can solve a lot of the problems of the two-career family. The casserole can be put together--and slowly cooked--over the weekend and left waiting to be reheated.

The sour cream noodle dish was among the all-time favorite casserole dishes. Even Beard included this one in his “Casserole Cookbook.” He says it makes a perfect dish for lunch or a superb dinner dish as an accompaniment to chicken or veal.

The following recipe of Ham-and-Sour-Cream Baked Noodles is my version of this classic. Apple Brown Betty seems most fitting to follow it, since it can be assembled easily and put into the oven when the casserole is served. Apple Brown Betty must be served warm with a little heavy cream poured over the top.

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HAM-AND-SOUR-CREAM BAKED NOODLES

1/2 pound noodles, cooked and drained

1 1/2 cups cottage cheese

1 1/2 cups sour cream

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2 cups chopped cooked ham

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup chopped green pepper

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1/2 cup finely chopped celery

1/4 cup finely chopped onion

6 tablespoons butter, melted

Pepper

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Place cooked noodles in bowl. Add cottage cheese, sour cream, ham, eggs, salt, green pepper, celery, onion and melted butter. Season to taste with pepper. Toss until well mixed. Turn into buttered 3-quart casserole. Bake at 350 degrees 50 to 60 minutes, or until bubbling and set. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

765 calories; 1966 mg sodium; 301 mg cholesterol; 46 grams fat; 48 grams carbohydrates; 40 grams protein; 0.58 grams fiber; 54% calories from fat.

APPLE BROWN BETTY

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5 tablespoons butter, melted

2 cups homemade dry bread crumbs

5 cups firm, tart apples, about 1 1/2 pounds, peeled and sliced

1/2 cup brown sugar, packed

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1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/3 cup hot water

1/2 cup whipping cream

Toss melted butter and bread crumbs together lightly in bowl. Divide crumbs into 3 equal parts. Spread 1/3 of crumbs in buttered 1 1/2-quart casserole.

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Combine apples, brown sugar and cinnamon in bowl. Toss until mixed. Spread half apple mixture over crumbs, add second layer of crumbs, then remaining apples. Top with final layer of crumbs. Add hot water.

Cover with lid or foil and bake at 350 degrees 25 minutes, then uncover and bake 20 minutes more. Remove from oven, pour whipping cream over top and serve warm. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

343 calories; 273 mg sodium; 42 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 48 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.82 grams fiber; 42% calories from fat.

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