Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Aunt Rita's Squash Casserole

Well, I can't very well talk about casseroles without sharing the recipe for one of THE BEST squash casseroles you could ever eat.  It's a little bit of a non-recipe, because I personally don't like to follow them exactly and in this family when you ask for a recipe, you get a response that includes things like "about a cup or so" or "enough to cover."  So here it is.  Be brave, and follow it as closely (or not) as you feel like:

6-8 medium yellow squash, sliced
onion (I like onion so I might chop a whole one, but you pick.  I use sweet onions.)
carrot (about 1 medium, grated)
a stick of margarine or butter (I never said this was health food)
a bag of unseasoned cornbread stuffing
a can of cream of chicken soup
a cup of cheese (chedder, grated)

Here's what you do:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Boil the squash until just tender and drain.  (You don't want them too squishy or soupy since they are going to bake in a little bit).
Melt the margarine, and put a little bit of it in a skillet and saute your onion and carrot. 
Add the bag of stuffing mix to the rest of the melted margarine and mix until moist.  Spread half of the stuffing mixture in the bottom of a baking dish (about an 8x8 or so will do; this doesn't make a HUGE casserole)
Mix the squash, carrot, and onion.  Put your squash mixture on top of the stuffing layer.  Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.
Mix together your soup and sour cream, and pour the mixture all over the squash.
Sprinkle your cheddar cheese over the top of that, and then top with the remaining stuffing mix.
Bake at 350 for 25 to 30 minutes.  Prepare to experience squash heaven.

It's a pretty easy recipe, and Southern comfort food at its finest.  And if you grew the squash in your own garden (I did!) then you get extra points.  Of course, if you didn't, you can buy frozen sliced squash at the grocery story, and I won't tell anybody. :-)

Making my case for my hometown

I've lived in the same small town all my life.  It's a little bit like Mayberry, except now we have a McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, Food Lion, and two Chinese restaurants.  Our town was built around a train depot, so we still have quite a few tracks running through, although trains don't come by as often anymore.  We've got a volunteer fire department, where my husband volunteers.  And it's not all that unusual to see someone driving through town on a tractor.
A lot of people I went to school with always moaned and groaned and complained about getting out of here at the first possible opportunity.  I guess that's fine for them, except I've noticed that a lot of the ones who left have started to trickle back.  I don't ever remember thinking that I wanted to leave, because this is home.  This is where I lived so close to my schools I could have walked (if I had gotten up early enough for that kind of thing) and where I've spent all but the first four years of my life as a member of the First Baptist Church.  This is where I cheered for the little league football team and rode in the Christmas parades shaking my pom poms and tossing out candy.  This is where my childhood best friend's mom owned a furniture store on main street, and where as children we went every day after school and ran up and down the sidewalks, getting ice cream from the snack counter at the drugstore that has not changed a bit since about 1950.
This is also where you can drive about a mile or two away from my house and you start seeing the hazy blue silhouette of the Blue Ridge mountains.  About another 30 minutes or so you can be in those mountains.  My husband and I drove up and spent the weekend in lovely Hendersonville, NC a few weeks ago, and I commented as we drove up the mountain under cool, shady branches and surrounded by ferns and the occasional trickling waterfall, "Some people have never even been to mountains like these, and they don't have any idea what they're missing."  These mountains aren't barren and rocky.  They are rolling, and lush, and green, and the few exposed rocks are often covered by moss.  My husband proposed to me at Pearson's Falls, a gorgeous waterfall not too far from where we live, and right down the road from my great-grandfather's mountain cottage, and it could not have been a more perfect place.
Here's the main fall... beautiful!

      And you walk up to the main fall along a trail beside these small, drippy, mossy waterfalls that are so incredibly peaceful.

I can't imagine living where I couldn't just jump in the car and go up to those mountains.

Besides those mountains, we're not all that far from the beach either.  About 3 and a half hours, and you can be on the sand.  I've always adored going to Myrtle Beach because it's nostalgic for me, but Charleston really has my heart.  Savannah, GA is lovely too, and it may be my second love, but Charleston is truly the crown jewel of the south.  The cobblestone streets, the majestic mansions on the battery, the breezy verandas, the haunting old trees, the rich history, the sweetgrass baskets, and the amazing seafood... you just can't beat it!  Unless you've seen Charleston, you can't believe how beautiful it is.  Pictures don't really do it justice, but I plan to do a whole post on Charleston in the future.  
To close, I just want you to imagine something.  Imagine sitting in a rocking chair sipping lemonade as the sun sets, with a slight balmy breeze and the sounds of thousands of bugs singing to each other as the lightning bugs begin their dance in the field.  That's how we spend our summer evenings here.  Now don't you want to come on down?? :-) 

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Southernism #1: Casseroles

I know it's been a long time since I wrote.  I've been a little busy!  I finished my master's degree, taught 2 maternity leaves for teachers who had babies, and I've been frantically searching for my own teaching job for the past few months.  But God is good, and I got my job, and our new house is hopefully just a month or so away from being started, and life can now resume. And now that that's out of the way, one to my first Southernism:  Casseroles.
If you've never had the pleasure of eating a truly good casserole, (be it chicken, vegetable, green bean, squash, hashbrown, broccoli, etc.) then all I have to say is, "Bless your heart!"  Now I know some people turn up their nose when they think of a casserole.  They picture a gloopy, gooey mess that was born when somebody cleaned out their pantry and just dumped everything in a dish and baked it.  However, that is not the case.  A casserole has several distinct parts, and I'm about to explain them to you. 
First:  The "Base" (I made that term up, but you'll get the picture)
The base is whatever the casserole is BASED on (I'm so clever!) For example, in Chicken casserole, that would be the chicken.  In squash casserole, the squash.  Got it?  Good.  Usually this part goes in first.  If it's a meat, it will be ccoked first.  Depending on the casserole, it might have chopped vegetables (celery, onion, carrot, etc.) added to it, or seasonings. 
Second:  The "Binder"  (made that up, too)
I'm calling the second part the binder because it binds everything together.  It's some kind of liquid, and it is very often a can of cream of something soup.  The most popular are cream of mushroom, cream of chicken, or cream of celery.  Sometimes this might be mixed with some mayonnaise or sour cream, or something like that to give it some zing.  This part of the casserole usually goes on next.  There are TWO possible ways to achieve this:  you can MIX it in the base, or just pour it all over the top.  Doesn't make a huge difference which way you do it.  Just a preference!
Third:  The "Bread"
The bread layer is not usually an actual bread.  Most often it's crushed up crackers, bread crumbs, corn flakes, or stuffing mix.  It is often mixed with melted butter so it won't come out bone dry.  This is often the top layer.  HOWEVER (important!) if your casserole includes a layer of shredded cheddar cheese, it will go on the top before the bread layer.  If you're feeling really daring, you might even choose to stir together the base, binder, AND cheese, but you will NEVER stir the bread into it.  It always sits right on top, because nobody wants soggy bread chunks floating in the middle of their delicious casserole.
Finally:  The Baking.  Most casseroles bake for about 30-45 minutes at about 350 until golden brown, bubbly, and fragrant :-)

Okay, now that you know what a casserole IS, let me tell you what it DOES.  A casserole can soothe the soul.  Every good Southerner knows that in any tragedy, a casserole brought to the door will almost always be a welcome comfort.  Why?  Because of casseroles' other magical power:  they almost all freeze beautifully.  ("It's in the Freezes Beautifully section of my cookbook, and I want something that freezes beautifully!" Name that classic Southern movie!)  You can take them over frozen, and then the recipients of this warm gooey goodness can put it away and then pull it out at a time when they don't feel like cooking and have a meal in minutes.  Casseroles are excellent for the following times of tragedy or stress:  deaths, illnesses, operations, financial hardships, and childbirth.  Of course, you may think of other times when a casserole would be just the ticket, and you are probably right.  I could go on and explain the list of other foods that are appropriate (ok, necessary) at a time of tragedy, but that's for a later time.  For now, just don't fight the urge.  Go grab something delicious, pour some cream of something soup over it, top it with cheese if desired, slap on a layer of breading, and pop that thing in the over and just TRY to turn your nose up at a casserole again once you've experience one.  This isn't cuisine, baby doll.... it's comfort food!