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Nouveau Casseroles

Few dinner dishes evoke childhood memories as powerfully as the casserole. Remember macaroni mixed with ground beef and cheddar cheese? Or wide egg noodles with flakes of canned tuna, dotted with peas and topped with crushed potato chips? Then there was the 1950s-era fixture of many American dinner tables: creamy green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup, served with crunchy fried onions from a paper canister.

Love it or leave it, most of us grew up eating some variation of casserole as part of the family dinner rotation. Often it was a recipe that Mom fine-tuned over the years to please every family member's taste buds.

"My mom made a casserole she called goulash," a friend told me. "Elbow macaroni, ground beef, canned diced tomatoes, canned tomato sauce, fresh corn, fresh lima beans, salt, pepper and a crushed Ritz cracker topping. Whenever I've had a bad day, I want to eat that."

Another friend echoed this childhood nostalgia: "I have a soft spot for shepherd's pie," he wrote. "Eating one today is like getting a culinary hug from my mom."

During these difficult times, why not give ourselves permission to embrace our inner child by revisiting a dish from the past? Heck, most of us are already in a fetal position anyway from the depressing headlines.

The term casserole means "saucepan" in French, but a more modern translation should be "kitchen sink," as Americans have experimented over the years with all varieties of starches, fillers, binders and toppings. From cornflakes cereal to trendy Japanese panko crumbs, the topping gives the casserole the necessary crunch to contrast with what is almost always a creamy interior.

The filler is usually pasta or rice, protein and veggies, all held together by a thickened binder of milk or cream — sometimes it's chicken or vegetable stock — and cheese both inside the filler and sprinkled along with the topping.

A traditional casserole is not for the faint of heart. Your Weight Watchers point system would probably self-destruct if casseroles became part of your weekly diet.

For all their caloric excess, though, casseroles are popular for other more legitimate reasons: They are easy to prepare; they can be frozen or refrigerated for days in advance; they are cheap to make (a casserole can feed a whole family for a few bucks); and they offer convenience from beginning to end (How many complete dinners can you heat and serve in the same dish?).

But returning to a casserole classic doesn't necessarily mean reaching for the can of cream of mushroom soup that's been in your pantry since the Eisenhower administration. There's no excuse not to saute your own mushrooms or celery, stir in flour and fat, and then add milk to make your own creamy sauce. Trust me. It's easy, and it tastes better than anything you can find in a can.

Once you have the binder, you can experiment with the starch and protein. If you don't like egg noodles, try ziti or fusilli. If a recipe is too dry for your taste, add more liquid. If you don't eat tuna, substitute cubed cuts of chicken or the cheaper tail portion of fresh salmon that's been baked and flaked off with a fork. Choose fillings you know your family will eat.

Now, the toppings debate. I have sampled a number of crusts: panko crumbs, homemade fried onions (soaked in buttermilk, fried with a dusting of flour and corn meal), fried shallots (dusted in corn starch and fried quickly in oil), canned fried onions, crushed potato chips and crushed cornflakes. All of them were delicious, but I thought the onion rings were better on their own, while the shallots were too fragile to hold up to a big bite.

There is just something about the old-school options of cornflakes, chips or canned onions that make a casserole more satisfying. I guess if I'm going to time-travel into my culinary past, I want the one ingredient that makes the dish authentically indulgent.

Another way to look at it is that I like my casseroles the way I like Mickey Rourke: bulked up and grotesquely attractive, dressed with something kitschy that takes it over the top. The combination of all of this is something immensely enjoyable — almost addictive. Like the famous actor turned boxer turned actor again, a good casserole always leaves me wanting more.

So let's bring comfort back. In these uncertain times, it's one of the few things that will make you loosen your belt, not tighten it.

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Howard Yoon