Magazine article Sunset

Reinventing the Casserole

Magazine article Sunset

Reinventing the Casserole

Article excerpt

Labor-saving steps, ready-to-cook convenience, and contemporary foods can make your next party a breeze

* A casserole for a party? If you still equate casseroles with canned tuna, potato chips, and unidentifiable ingredients, it's time to take a second look.

Today's casseroles have come a long way in appearance and taste. You start with more contemporary ingredients, such as portabella mushrooms, flavored tortillas, chipotle chilies, cooked polenta, and chicken breasts. Then use them in recipes that emphasize their best characteristics. Like their predecessors, these entertaining lifesavers can be made a day ahead.

To complete a casserole dinner, the party menu can be quite simple. Streamlined techniques Save hours of effort and cleanup

Stuff raw mushrooms with meat filling before baking.

Replace time-consuming homemade pasta with egg roll wrappers to make cannelloni.

Bake chicken breasts and asparagus together on purchased cooked polenta.

Cook tortellini in a purchased enriched sauce instead of boiling in water.

1. Trim and discard excess fat from pork. Cut pork into 1/2-inch cubes.

2. In a 5- to 6-quart pan, combine pork, onion, garlic, cumin seed, and l/2 cup broth. Cover, bring to a boil over high heat, and cook 10 minutes. Then boil, uncovered, stirring often as liquid evaporates and a brown film forms on pan bottom, 5 to 12 minutes. Add another 1/2 cup broth, stir browned bits free, and stir often until liquid evaporates again, 3 to 6 minutes. Add 1 can red chili sauce and stir browned bits free, then reduce the heat to simmering and cover.

3. Meanwhile, remove seeds and veins from chilies, then rinse and finely chop.

4. Add corn and red bell pepper to pork. Then stir in chilies to taste. Simmer until meat is tender enough to pull apart, about 1 1/4 hours total; stir often. Remove from heat and mix in chopped cilantro. Add salt to taste.

5. Pour remaining red chili sauce into a rimmed pan (at least 10 in. wide). Dip 1 tortilla in sauce, turning to coat each side, and lay in a round casserole or ovenproof platter, 12 to 14 inches wide. Cover tortilla with about 1/7 (about 1 cup) of the pork sauce. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup Mexican cheese blend and 2 tablespoons cotija cheese. Repeat steps, ending with a tortilla on top. If making up to 1 day ahead, cover and chill pie, remaining chili sauce, and the cheeses separately.

6. Bake tortilla pie, covered, in a 350o oven for 25 minutes (1 hour if chilled). Uncover and continue to bake until hot in center (140 on a thermometer), about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with the remaining Mexican cheese blend and bake until it melts, about 5 minutes longer.

7. Meanwhile, peel, pit, and slice avocado. Also heat remaining chili sauce. Drizzle about 1/4 cup of the sauce over the tortilla pie. Garnish with avocado slices, remaining cotija cheese, and cilantro sprigs. Cut into wedges. Offer remaining chili sauce to spoon onto portions to taste.

The party-size casserole

The cannelloni, the chicken with asparagus and morels, and the lamb-stuffed portabellas each can be baked in one large casserole. The container should be about 2 1/2 inches deep and 11 to 12 by 16 to 17 inches (oval or rectangular). Cooking times will be about the same as in two smaller casseroles. However, if the casserole is made of heavy ceramic, which is slower to heat, you may need to allow a few minutes more in the oven.

If you use a metal roasting pan, tie a folded towel around the pan rim when you serve to conceal its utilitarian nature.

1. Filling. In a 10- to 12-inch ovenproof frying pan over high heat, stir butter, onion, and garlic frequently until limp but not browned, 5 to 7 minutes.

2. As onion cooks, cut chicken and veal into about 2-inch chunks. Stir into onion mixture. Bake in a 400(deg) oven just until meat is no longer pink in center (cut to test), about 15 minutes. …

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