In Defense of Dump-and-Bake Casseroles

In Defense of Dump-and-Bake Casseroles

In the Midwest (where Superman and Bob Dylan are from, BTW), a casserole is not just a one-pan meal. It is how we cook, how we gather, and even how we think — a potluck attitude where everybody is expected to bring something to the table.

I'm sure that at one point we were making casseroles with real ingredients (many millions of years ago), and lately we've returned to this tradition: My friend Amy Thielen, who wrote The New Midwestern Table, has some super-great versions in her book. I have even made some of them (including her delicious Classic Chicken and Wild Rice Hotdish).

But when I speak about casseroles, I'm really talking about the ones I grew up with — pieced together from cans, jars, blocks, and bags. Mix, cover, bake.

Imagine this scenario: It's Thanksgiving, and my beloved aunt has just piled up ingredients on the counter for two "vegetable" side dishes for the party. One has as its main ingredient Velveeta (which Sean Brock calls a heritage food, right on); the other calls for Cheese Whiz. Both are off brands, likely Wal-Mart, and my aunt makes a clear distinction between the two "cheese" products.

The former includes a bag of frozen chopped potatoes, a pint of sour cream, and cornflakes. The latter involves broccoli and cans of condensed soup. Both call for one pan — literally. Not even a cutting board or spoon is needed. And whatever you think of that kind of atomic-era food, the result is addictive: salty, creamy, soft, and tan; comforting and built to suit Midwestern palates.

Then there is this dish that everyone calls No Peek Chicken, which is made with two cans of condensed soup, chicken, and rice. It's covered tightly with foil and baked, and you're not supposed to worry at all about it, or "peek." (There's a similar version made with pork chops and minute rice that is also delicious.)

I'll admit: I have made one from scratch by mixing a standard béchamel with sautéed mushrooms, chicken breasts, and wild rice, to really swell results. But how much better was it than the dump-and-bake? Truth be told, not very much.

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