There's something soul-satisfying about a warm casserole straight from the oven. Whether I'm making my grandma's chicken spaghetti (made with Velveeta and Rotel) or my favorite King Ranch (from scratch), I know all served will leave with full hearts and happy stomachs.
The casseroles I grew up on were definitely retro—the recipes all came from my elementary school's cookbook Candlelight and Wisteria (I know, how Southern, right?!), and all of them began with "open the can." But to be completely honest, I look forward to our annual Thanksgiving's uber-processed green bean casserole more than any of the other dishes. Homemade versions will just never compare.
But the thing about casseroles is that their definition is constantly changing, just like the cooking of our times. As I've grown more adept in the kitchen, I find that casseroles are a great way to use up leftover ingredients in an interesting and delicious way. They definitely don't have to include the snubbed convenience foods of America's past.
Take this Swiss chard pasta bake. I happened to have leftover chicken from last week's chicken fricassee and an extra tub of ricotta from another recipe test. All the other ingredients I keep on hand at all times. I picked up a few bunches of swiss chard at a local market, and a healthful, tasty dinner was born.
Here's the thing about casseroles (and this one in particular): don't be afraid to veer from the path. Don't eat meat? Leave out the chicken. Only have shell pasta? Throw it in. No wine? Use lemon juice. Hate ricotta? Make a bechamel or just use a big handful of Gruyere to make it a cheesy noodle bake.
How about you? What do you consider a casserole? Is it part of your normal cooking routine?
Chicken and Swiss Chard Pasta Bake
1/2 pound whole wheat penne
3 bunches Swiss chard
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 onion, chopped
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 t0 2 cups cooked, shredded chicken
1 cup good-quality ricotta cheese
Splash dry white wine
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup panko crumbs
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 375°. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook pasta to al dente, or according to package directions. Strain and set aside (toss with a bit of olive oil if you'd like).
Rinse the swiss chard well and pull the leaves off the thick stalks, discarding the stems. Tear leaves into large chunks and set aside.
Meanwhile, heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large dutch oven or heavy stock pot over medium heat. Cook onions until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for another 30 seconds. Add the swiss chard to the pot and season generously with salt and pepper. Stir a few times to wilt the greens. Cover and reduce heat to medium low. Cook until greens are tender, about 10 minutes.
Add the cooked noodles, chicken, ricotta, and a generous splash of white wine to the greens, and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a medium-sized baking dish. Combine Parmesan, panko, and remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Sprinkle the Parm mixture over the top of the casserole and bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes or until the top is golden.
(Images: Nealey Dozier)