Since I test recipes for a living these days, I find ending up with something less than perfect rather irritating, so I have had to change my methods. I have since perfected my favorite casserole and use what I've learned to make others flawlessly too. Here are the secrets I've discovered to making perfect casseroles:
1. Remove extra moisture from wet vegetables before cooking.
If you don't want to end up with a swimming pool at the bottom of your casserole, you may have to give certain vegetables some TLC before they hit the baking dish. Frozen vegetables can be particularly problematic. Thaw them in a strainer so they lose their extra liquid. You can squeeze moisture out of frozen greens like spinach to dry them out. Also be wary of mushrooms: they're mostly water and need to be precooked.
2. You may have to "par-cook" vegetables that take longer to finish.
"Par-cook" is chef speak for partially cooking something. If you want to mix and match ingredients that cook at different rates, you need to ensure that everything finishes at the same time. That's where par-cooking comes into play. If you give ingredients that are slower to cook a head start -- such as potatoes, carrots or other root vegetables -- and then add them to a casserole that also has quicker-cooking veggies, such as broccoli or green beans, they'll be finished around the same time. You can par-cook vegetables by steaming, boiling and even roasting. Just remember not to cook them all the way. They'll finish cooking in the casserole.
3. Don't cook pasta all the way through before using in a casserole.
This sort of goes along with secret No. 2, but I thought I would give it its own mention since pasta is a mainstay in casseroles (hello lasagna!) and getting the right texture can be tricky. Regular pasta doesn't really have the chance to cook properly if you add it in its dry state to your casserole. And if you cook it all the way, it turns to mush. Cook your pasta up to 2-4 minutes shy of the suggested cooking time on the package. (Choose 4 minutes if you plan on freezing the casserole.) It should just be very "al dente" before you add it to the casserole, where it will finish cooking perfectly.
4. Make sure your casserole is the right temperature before you bake it.
The beauty of casseroles is that you can freeze them and eat them another day. Unfortunately, this can wreak havoc on your casserole if you don't do it properly. Some folks just throw the casserole in the oven frozen and let it bake for longer, but this can lead to really overcooking your ingredients. Be sure to defrost your casserole completely in the refrigerator before you bake it. This can take up to 2 days. Also, let it come up to room temperature as your oven preheats. If you put a cold casserole in the oven, the outer edge could cook too fast while the middle cooks too slowly.
BROCCOLI, BEEF AND POTATO HOTDISH
MAKES 8 servings
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
This easy casserole, full of ground beef, roasted broccoli and topped with hashbrowns, was inspired by the classic Minnesota Tater Tot hotdish. Roasting the broccoli before adding it to the casserole gives the whole dish a much more complex and exciting flavor, but it's by no means necessary. If you want to keep it simple, skip roasting the broccoli (Step 2) and use 6 cups frozen broccoli, thawed, in its place (omit 1 tablespoon oil, as well).
- 1 1/2 pounds broccoli, cut into 1-inch florets (about 6 cups)
- 2 tablespoons canola oil, divided
- 1 1/2 pounds 95 percent lean ground beef
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided
- 4 cups soy milk
- 1/3 cup cornstarch
- 2 cups shredded sharp vegan Cheddar cheese, preferably orange
- 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 4 cups frozen hash-brown or precooked shredded potatoes (see note)
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- Canola or olive oil cooking spray
- 1/4 teaspoon Hungarian paprika, preferably hot
Preheat oven to 450 F.
1. Toss broccoli with 1 tablespoon oil in a large bowl. Spread out on a baking sheet and roast, stirring once halfway though, until just soft and browned in spots, about 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add beef and onion and cook, breaking up the beef with a wooden spoon, until the beef is browned and the onion is softened, 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in Worcestershire, garlic powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Set aside.
3. Whisk milk and cornstarch in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking often, until bubbling and thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon, 6 to 8 minutes total. Remove from the heat and stir in Cheddar, 3/4 teaspoon salt and turmeric until the cheese is melted.
4. Spread the beef mixture in a 9-by-13-inch (or similar 3-quart) baking dish. Top with the broccoli and pour the cheese sauce evenly over the top.
5. Combine potatoes, egg, pepper and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt in a medium bowl. Sprinkle evenly over the casserole. Coat the top with cooking spray.
6. Bake the casserole until it is bubbling and the potatoes are beginning to brown, about 40 minutes. Sprinkle with paprika. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.
To Make Ahead: Prepare through Step 5; cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day or freeze for up to 1 month (defrost in the refrigerator for 2 days before baking). Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before baking (Step 6).
Note: Precooked shredded potatoes can be found in the dairy section of most supermarkets or near other fresh prepared vegetables in the refrigerated produce section. To make your own, halve 1 pound unpeeled baking potatoes; cook in lightly salted boiling water until slightly tender but still firm in the center, 7 to 10 minutes. Let cool on a clean cutting board. Shred using the large holes of a box grater.
Per serving: 411 calories; 19 g fat (10 g sat, 8 g mono); 115 mg cholesterol; 26 g carbohydrate; 0 g added sugars; 34 g protein; 4 g fiber; 737 mg sodium; 861 mg potassium
Nutrition Bonus: Vitamin C (140 percent daily value), Vitamin A (63 percent dv), Calcium (42 percent dv), Zinc (41 percent dv), Potassium (25 percent dv), Folate & Iron (20 percent dv), Magnesium (16 percent dv).
2 Carbohydrate Servings
Exchanges: 1 starch, 1/2 low-fat milk, 1 vegetable, 3 medium-fat meat, 1 fat