Casseroles come to the rescue of overworked cooks


In culinary defense of the casserole, I would like to point out that cuisines the world over are dotted with them. Cassoulet, the famous French baked bean dish, is a casserole. So is choucroute garni -- sauerkraut baked with sausages and other smoked meats. So are lasagna, moussaka, jambalaya and arroz con pollo.

Besides, there's nothing like a ready-for-the-oven casserole to bail out a tired working cook or save the day when friends decide to stay for supper. If the dish is frozen, just pop it into the microwave for a quick defrost, then bake as usual (adding a few extra minutes).

I like to make and freeze stuffed shells with tomato sauce, lasagna and a shrimp and rice dish I've loved since childhood for easy weeknight dinners. Before my daughter was born, I socked away a freezer full of casseroles, and they fed us well in those first exhausting days of parenthood.

I admit my casserole-making has fallen off lately, but when I started testing recipes for this story, I was reminded again of their considerable virtues and have vowed to stock the freezer anew.

But since so many of us have changed the way we eat, I wanted to keep the convenience and ditch the excess fat and salt.

So I combed cookbooks old and new, looking for recipes that someone else had updated or old favorites that we could lighten. I wanted good-tasting dishes that were not too fatty, not too salty, not too canned soupy. In large part, I relied on reduced-fat products that are widely available in supermarkets -- from cheese to sour cream substitutes to, yes, low-fat canned soup. All of today's recipes come within a whisper of heart-healthiness. If you round out the menu with bread (no butter) and salad (no fatty dressing), you can be reasonably sure you are eating well.

In the '50s, when canned soups first appeared, busy housewives embraced them and started turning out a flurry of casseroles based on cream of mushroom, cream of celery, cream of chicken. "Gourmet" concoctions often called for combinations of two or three. These cooks loved cream soups because opening a can was a big timesaver over making a white sauce or cheese sauce.

These days, canned soups aren't as popular because of their high fat and salt content. Manufacturers have devised lower-fat and lower-salt versions to address those concerns, but some cooks still shun them on grounds of taste.

If you don't like to cook with canned soup, it's easy enough to make a quick white sauce instead. Here's how:

In a medium saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons margarine, then stir in 2 tablespoons flour. Stir and cook for a few minutes, to get rid of the raw flour taste. Then add 1 1/2 cups skim milk and stir and cook over medium heat until the mixture thickens. Season with ** dry mustard powder, Worcestershire sauce, hot pepper sauce, grated onion, grated nutmeg -- whatever would mesh well with the other casserole ingredients. Then, proceed with the recipe as written.

Here are some tips on successful casseroles from the new cookbook "Casseroles, Classic to Contemporary," by Nina Graybill and Maxine Rapaport (Farragut Publishing, $11.95).

L * Most casseroles can be made ahead of time and freeze well.

* An unbaked casserole, tightly covered, can be refrigerated up to two days. Bring it to room temperature before baking and add 10 to 15 minutes to the cooking time.

* To freeze, cool the completely cooked casserole quickly, wrap in foil or plastic and store in the coolest part of the freezer.

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