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A hot take on casseroles

Food writer Holly Ebel says with cold weather coming, it's time to brush up on hot dishes.

The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever by Beatrice A. Ojakangas
"The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever" by Beatrice A. Ojakangas photographed on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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As the weather grows cold, we all start craving foods that will warm us, body and soul, the warm, tasty dishes that make us feel good inside and out.

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Enter casseroles: easy and quick to put together, a fall and winter staple. No one knows that better than Minnesota cookbook author Beatrice Ojakangas who has compiled a massive compendium, "The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever" featuring 500 different casserole recipes over 594 pages. Who even knew there were that many to begin with? It's an amazing collection of "hot dishes" (Minnesota term) for every season and every occasion; sweet to savory, hearty and light, even dinner-party worthy.

Among the reasons for her compiling these recipes, Ojakangas says, is to offer healthier and tastier choices. One suggestion she has is for us to make our own sauces rather than opening cans of "cream of whatever" soup. She does however give us permission to do so if time is of the essence and we'd simply rather open a can than fuss with a homemade sauce. Though there's no fuss really; she has sauce recipes that are quick to make.

Beyond ingredients and instructions

It's not just recipes but she also gives advice and pointers on dishes for cooking casseroles in, freezing and thawing baked casseroles, making them ahead, food safety, and helpful kitchen tools. While we may know some of this already, the suggestions in the book serve as good reminders.

The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever by Beatrice A. Ojakangas
"The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever" by Beatrice A. Ojakangas photographed on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Compared to the casseroles of previous years Ojakangas points out there are more flavors available for cooks to use today thanks to ethnic dishes, ingredients from other countries and the availability of ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes, brined olives, dried and fresh mushrooms, and fresh herbs. In short, the tuna casserole of yesterday can reach new heights, flavor-wise, today.

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The 17 chapters cover every food category you could think of from the appetizer casserole chapter to the dessert casseroles. In between are sections devoted to breads, breakfast and brunch, pastas, grains and legumes, poultry, pork, beef, lamb, veal and game casseroles, and that's not all. No food category is left out.

Learn while you cook

As this is hunting season, I was interested to see casseroles using game. In the process I learned that the term "venison" applies to the meat of elk, moose, reindeer, caribou, antelope and deer. Not coming from hunters, this was new to me. While there are so many casseroles to choose from, they are all doable, not complicated, and pretty straight-forward.

As these dishes have been – and still are – a part of our culinary heritage it was interesting to discover that earliest casseroles were rice-based, filled with meat, and included the French cassoulet, British pot pies and Italian lasagna.

The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever by Beatrice A. Ojakangas
"The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever" by Beatrice A. Ojakangas photographed on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

American-style casserole cooking reached its peak in the 1950s when food companies were promoting their products and often included recipes on the labels. Interesting too – and this may surprise you – macaroni and cheese is the oldest written casserole recipe and appeared in a 14th century medieval cookbook. It was made with fresh hand-cut pasta sandwiched between a mixture of melted butter and Parmesan cheese, not too much different than today's.

A version appears in the Ojakangas book.

With the holidays not too far away you might consider gifting this book to a young cook. I guarantee it will be used over and over again. Published by the University of Minnesota Press, it retails for $29.95.

Wild rice venison casserole with cranberries

1 cup wild rice
1-1/2 cups water
1/4 cup flour
1 lb. venison, cut into 2-inch cubes
3 tablespoons butter or oil
1/2 onion chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 can (14-1/2 ounces) stewed tomatoes with juice
1/2 cup diced green bell peppers
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/8 teaspoon curry powder
1-1/2 cups fresh or dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 350. Rinse rice in three changes of hot tap water and drain. In a saucepan combine rice with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook for 25 minutes. Drain off remaining liquid. (Rice should not be entirely cooked at this point.) Put flour in a shallow bowl or plastic bag and coat venison with flour. In a heavy nonstick skillet, heat the oil or melt the butter and brown the venison with the chopped onion. Transfer to a heavy 3-quart casserole dish and add the rice, garlic, tomatoes with juice, peppers, seasonings and cranberries. Cover tightly and bake for 1-1/2 hours or until venison is tender and rice is completely cooked, adding a little water if the casserole seems dry. Serves six.

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Walleye and green chile casserole

2 tablespoons butter
1 lb. mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 can (4 oz.) diced green chiles
1 to 1-1/4 pounds walleye fillets
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup clam broth or vegetable broth
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
Salt
Pepper
Chopped fresh cilantro or parsley for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 400. Butter a shallow 1-1/2 quart casserole dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter. Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet over high heat. Add the mushrooms, onion and green chiles and cook for 10-12 minutes, stirring often, until mushrooms are tender and dry. Transfer to the casserole dish and spread out evenly. Top with the walleye fillets, spreading them evenly over the mushroom layer. Add flour to the pan the mushrooms were cooked in and place over medium heat. Whisk in the broth and cook, whisking constantly, until thickened. Whisk in the sour cream, lime juice and season with salt and pepper. Spoon sauce over the fish, coating fillets evenly. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or just until the fish flakes when probed with a fork. Sprinkle cilantro or parsley and serve.

Sage, potato, bacon and cheese casserole

1 lb.sliced bacon, diced
1 medium sweet onion, chopped
8 eggs, lightly beaten
4 cups diced, cooked, potatoes
2 cups shredded mild Cheddar cheese
1-1/2 cups small curd cottage cheese
1-1/4 cups shredded Swiss cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage or 1 tablespoon dried

Preheat oven to 350. Butter a 9x13-inch glass baking dish. Spread out bacon on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until browned and crisp, about 10 minutes. Drain. Transfer the bacon and onion to a large bowl and stir in the eggs, potatoes, cheeses and sage. Transfer to prepared baking dish. Bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes or until eggs are set. Let rest 10 minutes before serving

Post Bulletin food writer Holly Ebel knows what’s cookin’. Send comments or story tips to life@postbulletin.com .

Food for Thought - Holly Ebel column sig

Related Topics: FOODRECIPESHOLLY EBEL
Post Bulletin food writer Holly Ebel knows what’s cookin’. Send comments or story tips to life@postbulletin.com.
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