Carol Jane Remsburg
Eons and eons ago, the casserole was invented. I'm not too sure, but I think that's how meals began to be prepared once we got past the one-note wonder of dinner. Yep, back in those days of old, just after we managed beyond a diet consisting entirely of meat or of roots, we learned how to put it all together. Early tools for cooking were simply that pot over the fire—everything went into it. This was the first attempt at a casserole.
Now, not everything that fits in a pot belongs there. There are rules and many of us don't play by them. Most of we that feed our families know that you don't drop rocks in said pot. Outside of that, all is fair game.
Well, I'm wrong. Casseroles weren't first in line, stews were. Casseroles are just a shuffle and a jump away from a stew. It's dinner with all its facets combined into one container—into the oven rather than from the stovetop, to be more precise. A good casserole is a layering of ingredients and flavor rather than a stirred jumble as with a stew or a soup. A stew is thicker and a soup is thinner. A good casserole is heavy and thick, something to be addressed with eagerness along with just a touch of finesse. It's full of meat and potatoes or pasta, some veges (not necessarily of the green variety), lots of onions, breadcrumbs and often cheese.
Long before my birth, but not too long, yet still past the age of the dinosaurs, a company named Campbell® began to can soup. Outside of their tomato and chicken noodle variety, their cream of mushroom had to be their bestseller—hands down! I'm not too sure that it still isn't the case today. Why? For the benefit of the weary housewife faced with the same limp chicken, burger, chops, and etcetera. What to do, what to make, and how to feed the family on a budget? Pull out a can and use your imagination. Some imaginations are better than others.
Growing up, if two out of those seven meals a week didn't have Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup® in it, then I wasn't eating at home. Whether it was a tuna casserole with lots of macaroni and onions topped with breadcrumbs and real shredded cheddar cheese, or meatballs with big egg noodles and lots of brown gravy with that mushroom soup mixed in., or any of the others, I was always at the dinner table with utensils at the ready pounding like an inmate ready for the feed.
And though it sounds like dear old Mom used a can or two of the stuff at every meal, I know she didn't. It's just that some of our familial favorites had that can of that magic stuff hidden somewhere in the middle of the mix. Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup® was the panacea of its day. If you grew up anytime covering the early 60's to mid-70's then you know. Further, if your mother was a good cook on a restricted budget, as most were, then that handy little can worked its way into your daily fare.
Into the mid-to-late 70's, the one-dish wonder hit the skids. The food advertisers of the day came up with a myriad of other outlets like Shake 'N Bake® to keep the meat separate from the veges and women across America found they had a few more pots to scrub after dinner was done. I can assure you they weren't happy about it either. While you could always fall back on broiled burgers and baked fries with a small pan of greens to fill out the meal, this didn't always mean it was better.
Burgers can be seasoned, patted out and grilled, broiled, or even fried. You end up with meat. The veges are just veges and can be bland unless you are chef d'cuisine of a four-star restaurant in NYC or LA. Add garlic? Sure. Onions? Sure. Hell, they've got truffles and all sort of exotic things along with fresh oysters and calamari to add. If your cupboard is like mine, we don't have that. Mayhap some good spices and marinates, but nothing like that and no Stilton cheese either. I don't even have a good goat cheese or feta waiting in the wings of the cold box for my experimentation. However that little can marked in red, white, and gold is always found on my shelves. It's as necessary as flour, sugar, and dried rice.
Born in 1955, my hubby somehow missed the Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup® gold rush and the casserole by a decade and a half. They just didn't have them. No one pot meals for that family, no. They had meat, taters, and greens with, ugh, sliced commercial bread. If any 'bread' accompanied my evening meal growing up, it was of the kind that my mother made herself. Oh, we had commercial sliced bread for our lunches, but if this was to be with a meal, then we smelled that growing bread all afternoon and into the evening—we were maddened by that tantalizing aroma and couldn't wait for it to come out of the oven hot and ready for the butter that we covered it with. We ate it all with relish.
Tonight I opted for something different. It's a Sunday and I normally cook on this day more than not, but Saturday is often when I have the time to devote and focus beyond just what might be hot and filling. Yesterday was old-fashioned fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy and peas. No, I didn't make bread. Today, hubby knew I had special chops waiting in the refrigerator. He couldn't wait! Nope, he couldn't wait for that time-honored crap he loves of "Shake 'N Bake" that I hate so much. So I didn't. I made a casserole.
I rinsed them well, kissed them with spices and some olive oil and laid them down to rest on the bottom of the pan. Then, I put a layer of thinly sliced potatoes, followed by a load of onions and carrots, more spices and another layer of bacon. I mixed up two cans of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup® with some cream and poured it over the contents. This I roasted for an hour at relatively high heat. I topped this with a pound of shredded cheddar cheese and homemade breadcrumbs. Some milk added, I turned down the heat, 20 minutes later, some more milk and some more time. Presto! We have a casserole.
The bread is brewing on the machine and nearly done. The casserole is about to take center stage. Bring on the memories. Chow will be good this night whether the old man acknowledges it or not. It's time he learned better. It's been too long.
So layer a casserole of your own, just don't put any rocks in it. They aren't exactly tasty, but most anything else in your imagination might make it so. Enjoy and dig in! Dinner's on!