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!

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