Consider the Casserole

Red pot on a wooden board with a mashed potato topping and gravy dripping down the side. A knife and fork on a blue and white napkin are beside the pot.

Far from basic, the casserole is stress-free way to host a dinner

By Erin Henderson

I was listening to a podcast the other day featuring Stanley Tucci. During the interview, The Tooch admitted he was feeling left-over anxiety from a dinner party he hosted that was far too elaborate. Apparently, his menu, while undoubtedly delicious, required him to regularly leave the table to stir this and flip that, abandoning his guests to talk amongst themselves. He said he should have “just made a stew or something” and leave it at that.

From what I’ve seen at many a dinner party, I think many hosts and hostesses get into the same trouble. It’s a lot of work to put together a multi-course meal, not to mention the delicate timing to all the sides and sauces that go along with (at least) the main course. And if they all must be hot? Oy vey.

The stress often leads well-intentioned party throwers to hang up the dish towel for good.

I get it; Food Network makes it look easy – and pretty fun, really – to throw together an impressive dinner for 12 guests in under an hour. That’s in front of the camera. Peak behind the scenes and you will see teams of recipe developers, stylists, prop managers, assistant chefs… a roster of people making that easy-as-pie dinner come out perfectly every single time. The true magic of television. The reality for home cooks, of course, is much different.

I spent many years working in restaurants – from family-friendly steak houses to what was then Canada’s best fine dining restaurant. The one thing they all have in common is a multi-positioned kitchen brigade, each with their own responsibilities from making the salads, to grilling the meats, to creating the sauces. Finally, all the pieces get sent to one chef, generally the Sous, for plating. The executive chef looks it over and sends all the beautifully impressive dishes out to be served, piping hot. Depending on the kitchen and the plate there could be as many as eight different people working on one dish. And that doesn’t count the prep kitchen, pastry chefs, or dishwashers. 

Consider the Casserole

For us home cooks, feeding a multitude of people – whether it simply be Sunday’s family gathering, or inviting co-workers for a dinner party – can be taxing enough: planning, shopping, cooking, washing up. Why make it more difficult on yourself with à la minute preparation? Not only does that add unnecessary, time-sensitive stress to your meal, but it removes you from the conversation, abruptly halting the lively banter. (If there isn’t lively banter at your dinner party, then you have bigger problems).

If you find yourself without a Sous or Saucier at your beck and bellow, take a page from Stanley’s book and “just make a stew or something” for your next dinner party.

In this world of glitzy Instagram accounts, initially the suggestion of a one-pot wonder may sound depressingly uninspired and mundane. Casserole conjures images of a permanently Prozac-ed June Cleaver, donning her finest pearls to crack open a can of cream of mushroom soup and dump it on a pile of frozen green beans.

Before you get unappetizing images of a permanently Prozac-ed June Cleaver, donning her finest pearls to crack open a can of cream of mushroom soup and dump it on a pile of frozen green beans, let me disabuse you of the notion casseroles are uninspired, suburban dreck. Lasagna, beef bourguignon, enchiladas, chili, mac and cheese, chicken pot pie ­– these are all technically examples of a casserole, and I’ve never seen anyone turn up their nose at those comforting meals.

May I also suggest another important, but often unconsidered, reason to rely on the casserole for your entertaining? The humble dishes of stews, pastas, and pies work to provide a much-needed supporting role to the evening. An intricate and complex meal forces everyone at the table to ooh and ahh and adulate the cook, each guest echoing and outdoing the previous. All ceremoniously eating with careful consideration, being sure to use the right fork, while murmuring how exceptional the food is. What a bore.

Instead, an earnestly prepared casserole of chicken and dumplings, for example, offers a comforting substructure for the party, not stealing the show, but adding a welcome base from which conversation can flourish. The casual nature of the casserole welcomes friends to dig in, go back for seconds, debate loudly, and laugh even louder.

I’m pretty sure Stanley would approve of that dinner party.

Tartiflette

I was first introduced to the Tartiflette when taking a French cooking class a few summers ago. It’s a hearty, cheese-laden, layered casserole from the Alps that I don’t recommend for 35-degree temperatures with near 100% humidity, but is perfect for crisp evenings when darkness creeps in early and wind blows against the windows.

My teacher, Jean-Jacques, in his charming accent, calls the Tartiflette a “booze sucker.” (It sounds more like, “booze-suck-aire” when he sing-songs his instructions.) Noting that after a hard day of negotiating moguls down the mountains, the French retire to the cozy warmth of the chalet to go equally hard on their post-athletic activities. As copious amount of crisp Jura wine celebrate a triumphant day on the slopes, the fortifying Tartiflette (almost always) ensures that the intrepid skier can hit the hills the next morning with gusto.
 
Reblochon is the traditional cheese to use here, and indeed is absolutely worth it. But it can be tough to find, and it is very expensive, so if you find yourself looking for an alternative, consider Fontina, Raclette, Taleggio or even Gruyere as a stand in.
 
Serves: 6 (ish)
Chef level: Easy
 
3 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
12 oz lardons
2-3 cups sliced white onion
½ cup dry white wine
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 lb Reblochon cheese or alternative, cut into strips or large cubes
Butter, softened for spreading the baking dish
 
1. Butter a 9x13 casserole or lasagna pan.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes and cook until softened, but not overcooked, about 8-10 minutes (a knife should pierce easily but not have the potato flake apart.)
3. Drain the potatoes and set aside.
4. Pre heat the oven to 425°F
5. In a large skillet fry the lardons until cooked but still soft. Using a slotted spoon, remove bacon from the pan and drain fat on a paper towel.
6. Using the remaining fat, add the onions and fry until soft and translucent.
7. Add the potatoes, onions, and bacon to the buttered casserole, pour in the white wine, and season with salt and pepper (be careful with salt as there will already be a fair amount from the cooked potatoes and the lardons). Stir to combine.
8. Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes, then remove it to sprinkle with a good layer of the cheese and return to the oven until the cheese is melted and golden, about another 15 minutes.
9. Serve with a green salad and generous glasses of cold, French, white wine.
 
Wine Pairing: 

Wines from the Jura or Savoie regions are classic pairings, but very tough to find in Ontario. Among the numerous grapes the regions grow is Pinot Gris, which is easier to source, albeit from other French areas.

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