I happen to own an extensive collection of Southern community cookbooks. My library includes tomes from junior leagues, churches, and schools, and all are equally cherished. Why? Because a community cookbook is like a time capsule. Its year of publication marks what families were cooking and eating and reflects the taste and traditions of a generation.
My collection ranges from the early 1900's to present day. And from all of my reading and cooking, I've noticed that things really do come full circle. Dinner used to be made from scratch, when our grand and great-grandparents kept gardens and chickens and cows. But through the years — with multiple wars and the industrial revolution — everything we knew about food changed. Processed foods took over grocery store shelves and exotic produce became accessible to even the most remote areas; however, the tide seems to be turning. In 2011, gardening is cool, farmers are rock stars, and canning is chic.
One thing is for sure, though, casseroles will always be in fashion. Community cookbooks are filled to the brim with recipes, often duplicate versions of the same dish veiled under different names (Aunt Sally's World Famous Poppy Seed Chicken!). The common factor, it seems, is that the sum is always better than the parts. Any plain ol' leftovers can be refurbished into a delicious, heartwarming meal. And who's going to say no to veggies if they're tossed with a creamy sauce and topped with bubbling cheese? I didn't think so.
Casseroles tend to appear on my table during important milestones and celebrations. As a matter of fact, chicken tetrazzini was the first thing I ever cooked for my boyfriend (hint: we're still together). Obviously I take the matter very seriously. Lately I've been experimenting with finding the perfect base recipe. The little black dress of béchamel, if you will. Granted, making my sauce from scratch takes a bit longer than using a can, but the best things in life usually do.
Two spoonfuls deep into this delicious Ham and Linguine Casserole and I realized my search was over. Twelve spoonfuls deep and I needed a nap. (Too bad there was nobody around to stop me from devouring it straight from the pan. I should never be allowed to cook alone!).
So without further ado, I'm pleased to introduce you to the mother of all casserole recipes. There will be many more in my future, I can assure you. I'm already envisioning all of the possible flavor combinations, like turkey and mushrooms or chicken and asparagus. I think great-grandmothers everywhere would approve.
Ham and Linguine Casserole
Serves 10 - 12
4 cups cooked and diced ham 1 large red bell pepper, chopped 1 large green bell pepper, chopped 1 medium onion, chopped 5 tablespoons butter 6 tablespoons flour 3 cups milk (2% or whole), scalded 1/3 cup chicken stock or broth 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, divided 3/4 cup shredded parmesan cheese, divided 1 teaspoon mustard powder 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt Freshly ground pepper, to taste 1 pound linguine noodles, broken into thirds and cooked to al dente
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Add a couple tablespoons of canola or olive oil into a large skillet. Over medium heat, sweat onions until softened. Add red and green peppers and cook until they just become tender, about 5 minutes.
In a sauce pan, melt butter on medium-low heat. Add flour and whisk until smooth (and flour taste is cooked out), about three minutes. Pour in scalded milk and chicken broth. Cook, constantly stirring, until very thick. Mix in 1/2 cup of cheddar and 1/2 cup of Parmesan and stir until melted and creamy. Remove from the heat and add mustard powder, salt, and pepper.
Combine sauce with ham, linguine, and vegetables. Taste and add more salt and pepper if desired. Pour the mixture into a large casserole dish. Sprinkle remaining cheddar and parmesan on top and cook until warm and bubbling, approximately 35 to 45 minutes.
To reheat, cut the casserole into large squares. Pour about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water into the seams and around the edges. (This allows moisture to steam the casserole instead of drying it out. The slices will "cook" themselves back together and the water will evaporate.) Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350°F until hot and bubbly.
If you aren't feeding a crowd, split the casserole between two smaller dishes and freeze one for next week.