When winter comes, I want meals that I can make ahead. When it gets cold and the sun goes down in the afternoon, the last thing I want is to come home from work and cook a complicated meal. Not to mention, seasonal produce is hard to find so I try to make do with the few winter or year-round crops. And for those snowy nights, I want something comforting. There is one dish that checks all these boxes, or I should say, a series of dishes: casserole. Known as hotdish in some parts of the country, casserole is easy to make, and you likely have all the ingredients you need constantly on hand. With a simple formula, you don’t even need a recipe. Following these steps, you can take whatever you have and turn it into a crowd-pleasing dinner.
Casserole consists of four simple elements, a grain, a protein, vegetables/seasonings, and a binder. First is the grain. We need something hearty to serve as a base for our casserole and give us some texture. This could be rice, pasta, diced potatoes, mashed potatoes, or even frozen tater tots. Layer it on the bottom, top, or mix it with the other ingredients. Except for the frozen tater tots, you will want to precook your grains. The casserole will not be in the oven long enough to cook something like raw pasta.
Next comes the main protein. Most of the recipes you see will include ground beef, but ground turkey is also a great choice. Why limit it there? Left over grilled chicken? Cube it up. Spiral ham from Christmas? Chop it up. How about chili? Why not! Just like with the grains, it is crucial that your meat is cooked through before being added to your casserole as they will not have enough time to do so in the oven. When it comes to ground meat, I brown it in a pan but as I said before, leftover cooked meat from other meals is a great move. If you do not want to include meat, try tofu, or use a hardy vegetable, like broccoli, as your casserole’s star. Let us not forget the option for beans and lentils to be the headlining act.
Now we must assemble a supporting cast. Vegetables bring flavor and nutrition to the party. Most recipes call for frozen veggies, but I opt for fresh, which I sauté before mixing in. When in doubt, diced onion and carrot are the way to go. When it comes to frozen vegetables, peas and corn and also generally a welcome addition. Aside from salt and pepper, I always season with plenty of herbs and spices. Follow your instinct and use what is appropriate for the other ingredients you are using. For a standard American casserole, I like thyme as it pairs well with the typical creamy binder.
This brings us to our last element, the binder. Something needs to hold all our ingredients together and bring a little moisture to the dish. In the Midwest, the most common binder is a can of cream of whatever soup. Cream of mushroom is a favorite, but you can use anything from cream of celery to cream of chicken. This is far from your only option. Tomato sauce, chili, cheese, bechamel, refried beans, and even sour cream or Greek yogurt mixed with brothwill also do the trick.
Here is the best part of making a casserole. All you have to do is mix the ingredients together in a big bowl, add it to a casserole dish (I prefer ceramic, but glass is fine), and bake at 350 degrees F until cooked through. If you feel up to it, I like to add a little crunch to the top weather it be the tater tots as my grain, a sprinkle of breadcrumbs, or crushed up ritz crackers. Remember that if you see the top of your casserole getting too dark or drying out, cover with foil until the inside is hot and ready. Another reason to love a casserole is that you can assemble it or even bake it in advance. Easily reheat it in that same 350-degree F oven.