16 March 2023: Comfort Casserole
It's funny how we all talk about "comfort food" as if it's a simple, clearly defined thing. From time to time we even see stories about an "ultimate" comfort food such as mashed potatoes. But the reality is that the concept is among the most complicated and ill-defined in all cooking, mainly because it's completely subjective.
What we find comforting is wrapped up in our individual taste preferences (which often defy everything else) and our experiences: where we were born, where we were raised, what the cooking of our family was like, how often and far we have traveled, what the climate was like at the homes of our formative years, and even what the climate is like in the places we call home now.
There are people for whom—shock of shocks—mashed potatoes would not be a comfort at all, never mind an "ultimate" one.
Likewise, there are undoubtedly a lot of people for whom a casserole of any kind would not even appeal. But for me and a lot of children of the mid-twentieth century, a bubbling, golden-crusted fresh-from-the oven casserole is one of the most comforting things imaginable. It rarely matters what's in it as long as it's piping hot and full of whatever familiar flavors and textures make us feel safe and loved.
Named for the container in which it is baked, these composed dishes came into their own in America as two-income households became the norm in the middle of the twentieth century. And it's unique to us: only in American English does casserole mean both a shallow baking dish and the thing that is baked in it; in French, Italian, Spanish, and Greek, it describes only the vessel, a sauce or stewing pan, usually with a long handle, that's generally not used for baking.
Like so many working mothers, mine wore many hats, and her busy work day did not end when she locked the door to the schoolhouse. Casseroles were her mainstay, something she could put together quickly, without having to dig out a recipe, from inexpensive ingredients that didn't need a lot of preparation. The hitch was that she rarely remembered how she'd made them, so when she hit on an especially good combination, she could almost never reproduce it.
Her better ones were attempts to trick her picky child (that would be me) who would not touch ground meat of any kind into actually eating budget friendly hamburger. This one is based on the taste memories of her most successful efforts.
Ground Beef and Potato Casserole
Change this up by substituting bulk sausage, ground turkey, or diced ham, by adding another vegetable such as green peas or mushrooms, and by varying the herb and spice combinations.
2½ pounds russet (about 3 large) or mature Yukon Gold (about 4 large) potatoes
1 pound ground beef (preferably chuck)
Canola, olive, or other vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter or drippings from browning meat (see step 2)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced small
1 small carrot, peeled and diced small
1 small rib celery, washed, strung, and diced small
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 teaspoons Italian Seasoning herb blend or 1 teaspoon each dried oregano and thyme or 1 tablespoon each chopped fresh parsley, oregano, and thyme
3 tablespoons instant-blending or all-purpose flour
2 cups beef broth
1 cup whole milk, warmed to room temperature
Whole black pepper in a mill
Whole nutmeg in a grater
1½ cups coarsely grated extra-sharp cheddar
1. Peel and slice the potatoes ¼-inch thick. Put them in a 3-quart saucepan, cover with water by about half an inch, add a large pinch of salt, and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Adjust the heat to a steady simmer and cook until barely tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and let them cool enough to handle.
2. Meanwhile, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350° F. Film a large, heavy-bottomed skillet with about 1 tablespoon of oil and put it over medium heat. When the oil is hot, raise heat to medium high and crumble in enough ground beef to cover the bottom of the pan without crowding. Brown it lightly and transfer it with a slotted spoon to a bowl. Season lightly with salt. Repeat with the remaining beef until all of it is browned. Drain off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat and discard it, or drain away and discard all of the fat and add 2 tablespoons of butter to the pan.
3. Adjust the heat to medium and add the onion. Sauté until softened and translucent, then add the carrot and celery. Continue sautéing until the vegetables are beginning to soften and the onion is pale gold, about 5 minutes, then add the garlic and herbs and stir until fragrant, about ½ minute. Sprinkle in the flour and stir until smooth and bubbly. Slowly stir in the broth and then the milk and bring it to a simmer, stirring constantly. Cook, still stirring, until it's thickened. Adjust the heat to a slow simmer, and season well with salt, pepper, nutmeg, and a few dashes of Worcestershire, all to taste. Simmer 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, and turn off the heat.
4. Smear the bottom of a rectangular 2-quart casserole with a little of the sauce. Cover the bottom with a single layer of potato slices and scatter 1/3 of the meat over them. Sprinkle on 1/3 of the cheese and spoon 1/3 of the sauce over it. Add a second layer of potatoes, 1/3 of the meat, 1/3 of the cheese, and 1/3 of the sauce. Top with the remaining potatoes, meat, sauce, and cheese, finishing this time with the cheese over the top.
5. Bake in the center of the oven until it's bubbly to the center and the topping cheese is lightly browned, about half an hour. Let it settle 10 minutes before serving.