October 16, 2013

These dishes are not your mother’s casseroles

Modern versions of the comfort food many of us associate with mom have been made healthier, but are still like ‘a big hug.’

By Susan Axelrod saxelrod@pressherald.com
Online Content Producer

It can stretch a pound of ground beef to feed a family of five and make supermarket cheese into something sublime. If you grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, it may have been dinner, more often than not. This familiar friend is the casserole, of course, that distinctly American culinary genre that despite being maligned by food snobs, has never fully gone out of favor.

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Cooking instructor Christine Burns Rudalevige's fresh take on lasagna substitutes grilled vegetables for the noodles. Rich but healthy, the dish is a family favorite.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Cooking instructor Christine Burns Rudalevige chops kale and mushrooms in her Brunswick kitchen for her No-Noodle Vegetable and Turkey Lasagne. She created the recipe to use vegetables such as eggplant, zucchini or butternut squash that can be cut round and flat and grilled, in place of noodles, and added turkey and cheeses.

Additional Photos Below

Casseroles to go

IF YOU’RE short on time or ingredients, pick up a tasty, nutritious casserole ready to pop in the oven. Here is what’s currently available at Portland’s Aurora Provisions and Whole Foods Market, but both places say the menu is subject to change.


AURORA PROVISIONS, 64 Pine St.; 871-9060

Chicken Pot Pie; Wild Mushroom Pot Pie; Shepherd’s Pie (topped with whipped sweet potatoes instead of the standard mashed). Large (serves 3-4) $14.99; small (serves 1-2) $8.49.

Macaroni and Cheese. Large $19; small $8.

Lasagna Bolognese; White Chicken and Spinach Lasagna.

Large only, $18.99.

Vegetable Lasagna; Spinach Pernod Lasagna; Eggplant Parmigiana. Large only, $14.99.


WHOLE FOODS MARKET, 2 Somerset St., 774-7711

(Each serves 8)

Mac & Cheese, $10.99.

Adobo Enchiladas with dirty rice, $11.99.

Chicken Parmesan with linguini, $12.99.

Eggplant Parmesan, $11.99.

In fact, like almost everything mid-20th century, casseroles are hot (pun intended). Recipes for modernized versions of shepherd’s pie and Southern-style chicken casserole appear in high-end food magazines, while healthy lifestyle publications include “lightened up” takes on the calorie-rich classics.

In Austin, Texas, the “Casserole Queens” are two friends who have built a successful brand from home delivery to best-selling cookbooks and TV appearances. Their recipes mostly feature fresh ingredients, bringing today’s casseroles closer to their roots.

Cooking “en casserole” – a French phrase that refers both to the method of combining several ingredients in one pot and the pot itself – dates to at least the early 18th century. Long, slow roasting turned tough cuts of meat and vegetables into a tasty meal, which went from oven to table in the same dish.

Beginning in the early 1940s, the Campbell’s Soup Company is credited with popularizing “modern” casseroles such as tuna noodle; these were easy on the cook because cream soups could be swapped in for a time-consuming sauce. By the mid-1950s, these casseroles were a boon for women who, whether or not they worked outside the home, were increasingly uninterested in spending hours in the kitchen. Canned soup and other newly available convenience foods were liberating, and the world was not yet aware of health issues caused by sodium or fat content.

If money and time were tight, casseroles eased the way. My mother, who entered the workforce after her three children were in school in the mid-1970s, relied on a rotating, budget-friendly repertoire that included tuna noodle (my favorite, with its crunchy topping of crumbled potato chips), macaroni and cheese (always melty Velveeta), American chop suey and something called “Texas hash.” With the addition of a salad or steamed frozen vegetables, dinner was done.

Christine Burns Rudalevige of Brunswick did not grow up on casseroles. “My Italian-Irish father thought lasagna was a side dish,” she says. But for her husband, the son of a Methodist minister, “casseroles and Jell-O molds are his comfort foods.”

Rudalevige, a recipe developer for Cooking Light magazine, cookbook recipe tester, food writer and chef instructor/culinary lead at Stonewall Kitchen in York, Rudalevige is not about to make a casserole with canned soup or frozen peas. But with a busy professional life, and as the mother of Eliza, 12, and Owen, 15, one-dish meals are often on her table.

“To balance the two upbringings and help appease my foodie self, I have developed a couple of staples,” she said.

Among them, her No-Noodle Vegetable and Turkey Lasagna is a family favorite.

“When I grill vegetables I go out to the grill and do a big platter of them to eat all week,” she explains. “But I wanted to do something different … I thought, can we do a veggie lasagna and make these the noodles? We needed to add more protein, so we put some turkey in it.”

Rudalevige likes to use eggplant and zucchini, but depending on the season, the “noodles” might be butternut squash or peppers – “anything that you can cut round and flat and grill,” she says.

The dish is rich and cheesy, with ricotta, fresh mozzarella and Parmesan, and gets an extra boost of nutrition from chopped kale.

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Additional Photos

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Rudalevige spoons a ricotta cheese and herb mixture, left, over grilled butternut squash for her lasagna.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Another layer of grilled butternut squash is added to Christine Burns Rudalevige's No-Noodle Vegetable and Turkey Lasagna

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Creamy Curry Chicken Divan is Dana Moos’ update of her mom’s classic casserole, using roasted chicken and fresh broccoli.

Photo by Dana Moos

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