I'm not so sure that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, but if I were to subscribe to that theory, and didn't have much time to spend fooling around in the kitchen, then I would take the most direct route: the casserole.
Listen up ladies. With the possible exception of metrosexualsand who wants to date someone who has better skin than you?most men don't really like fancy food. If it doesn't intimidate them, it makes them suspicious, and neither emotion is conducive to romance. What is all this dried fruit doing in my rice? Am I supposed to eat the flowers or put them in my water glass? Why does that cheese smell like old tennis shoes? Is radicchio Italian for radish? What's wrong with iceberg lettuce anyway?
Most menand children, who typically have the same palate as grown menlove casseroles. Approaching a casserole is a simple proposition: using a serving spoon or spatula, pile it on your plate according to your appetite, thenwith a singular piece of cutlery, fork or spoondig in. No tricky negotiating with culinary protocol, no fretting over which sauce to put on which element of the meal, no wondering if all components are edible.
Not only do casseroles take all the worry out of eating, they take much of the work out of cooking.
Or at least that's the way my mom Joyce Shaw, the Queen of the Casseroles, sees it. On the phone from Hot Springs, Ark., she explains, "The appeal of casseroles for me was they were easyfix them, put them in the oven, then eat themand, when Crock-Pots were invented, it was twice as easy!"
Casseroles were the perfect thing for feeding a largeseven-memberfamily on a budget. She usually mixed one up in the morningsometime between the breakfast and lunch feedingsthen before going out to make her afternoon rounds, she put it in the oven, set the timer, and by the time my dad wheeled into the driveway at 4:50 p.m., the hot dish was sitting on the kitchen counter to cool. On the table might be a salad, a bowl of applesauce or a saucer with carrot and celery sticks. Beside my father's plate, a loaf of white bread and a tub of margarine.
My motherwho makes Martha Stewart look disorganizedmade weekly meal plans just before doing her weekly grocery shopping. There were always at least two casseroles in the seven-day repertoire. "My three top family-pleasing casseroles were tuna noodle, macaroni and cheese, and baked macaroni and hamburger. Just look at all those carbs we were all eating day after day after day! I think most of the recipes I used came from magazines, newspapers or cookbooks.
"The tuna recipe came on a can of something (probably cream of mushroom soup), the macaroni and cheese was grandma's, and the hamburger one came from a cookbook grandma gave meWhat You Can Do With One Pound of Hamburger58 recipes with complete menus. I still have the bookCopyright 1943, price 25 cents."
A couple of years ago, when she and my father were here staying with my kids while I was out of town on business, she made a variation of the macaroni-hamburger casserole from a recipe off the side of a mac-and-cheese box. "Make the macaroni and cheese, brown a pound of hamburger, drain the fat, add to macaroni and cheese, stir in a can of cream of mushroom soup, and cup milk. Bake in 2-quart greased casserole at 350 for 25 minutes."
Not only did my children go wild for the casserole, so did the man I was dating at the time, whom I had triedand miserably failedto dazzle with my gourmand skills.
This particular manwhose rules of dining included a no-more-than-five-ingredients-per-dish policywas a passionate advocate for one-bowl meals, his more patrician, or at least Zen-like, euphemism for casserole.
One-bowl meals have been around, of course, since the beginning of time; cave men and women did not have cupboards full of dishes. They can be found in virtually every land of the earth, and in every type of cuisine: lasagna in Italy, moussaka in Greece, pho in Vietnam, pad Thai in Thailand, cassoulet in France, stews in Africa, goulash in Hungary, albondigas in Mexico, sauerbraten in Germany.
The common thread is that each is fondly regarded, in whatever its country of origin, as comfort food. Food that speaks to us of the family table, of home, of familiar scents and flavors. Typically, they are dishes eaten in the fall and winter, when the long nights call for a pre-bed dose of warmth and substance.
My 100-plus-volume library of cookbooks runs the gamut from Betty Crocker to Julia Child, with plenty of regional and method diversity in between. One I occasionally pull out and use I purchased at a yard sale: Southern Living Casserole Cookbook.
The intro reads: "The tantalizing aroma of meats and vegetables blending their flavors...the mouth-watering sight of a bubbling-hot meal-in-a-dish...the sheer joy of popping your entire supper into the oven to bake...welcome to the wonderful world of casseroles!"
Sheer joy rarely comes to me as I pop my entire supper into an oven to bake, but I won't argue that it's awfully handy, particularly on those days when my daughter's volleyball game overlaps my son's football game, and we pull into our own driveway long after the sun has set, with a couple hours of homework and housework to tackle before bed. At that moment, walking into a dark house, hungry, cranky, exhausted from a too-much-to-do, too-little-time day, the reassuring scent of a home-cooked meal wafting from the kitchen puts a smile on my face and a heaping bowl of comfort on our table.
There are several cookbooks, available through Amazon.com, that focus on one-bowl meals, among them: One Bowl: One Dish Meals From Around the World, by Kelly McCune and Joyce Oudkerkpool; Mable Hoffman's Crockery Cookery, by Mable Hoffman; The Big Book of Soups and Stews, by Maryana Vollstedt, who also authored The Big Book of Casseroles; and the beautifully photographed Pot Pies: Forty Savory Suppers, by Beatrice Ojakangast and Sally Sturman.
When I am especially in need of something warm and substantial, with deep, rich, hearty flavor to boot, I head to Yellow Porch, and order Kim Totzke's fall/winter staple, returning soon to her menu: Lamb & White Bean Cassoulet with roasted potatoes & spinach with breadcrumbs. Ambitious home cooks can follow the recipe below; Village Wine's Hoyt Hill compiled the Porch's wine list and recommends a bottle of 1999 Domane Grand Veneur Chateauneuf du Pape ($15 at his store).
Yellow Porch's Lamb & White Bean Cassoulet
Part I: The Beans
3 C. white beans (soaked for at least a few
hours, don't allow to ferment)
3 tbs. chopped garlic
1 red onion, medium dice
2 C. white wine
2 large sprigs of rosemary
salt and pepper to taste
(ham hock optional)
Saute the garlic and onion in some olive oil. Add the drained white beans, white wine and rosemary. Add enough mushroom stock until about 3 inches above the beans. Add more as necessary. The beans should be juicy but not soup; cook until still intact but not overcooked.
Part II: The Lamb
4 lbs. lamb stew meat
2 onions, medium dice
2 carrots, medium dice
2 celery stalks, medium dice
1 tbs. dried thyme
1 bay leaf
2 quarts white wine
1 can crushed tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
Saute the lamb and vegetables in some olive oil. Simmer until the lamb is browned. Deglaze with some of the white wine as necessary. Add the rest of the ingredients. There should be enough stock added to keep the meat moist and juicy; simmer on low heat for several hours. The meat must melt in your mouth; keep stirring it from time to time to prevent sticking.
Part III: The Assembly
2 C. fresh spinach
1 C. roasted red potatoes
2 C. breadcrumbs mixed with a 1/4-cup of parmesan
Mix the beans, lamb, potatoes and spinach together in a casserole dish. Check once again for salt and pepper and add more mushroom stock if it isn't juicy. Cover with the breadcrumbs. Bake on 350, breaking the crust after 10 minutes and again after another 10 minutes, allowing some of the juices to come to the top. Let it bake until golden-brown.
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