Fancy Pants Casserole

First: I didn’t take any photos of the dinner I made last night. Previous lessons have taught us that casseroles are just not pretty. I suppose I could have taken some prep pics, but, I was cooking alone and tend to be very quick and focused in the kitchen. So apologies on that front. But you’ll thank me for the recipe. It was delicious.

As I was getting to the tail end of the work day last night, I thought about dinner, as I usually do. I thought, maybe I’ll make tuna casserole. It’s gross and disgusting outside, and that’s a very hibernation-favoring dish. Then my mind wandered back to last summer, when I made a very gussied up version of tuna casserole for a friend after he’d gotten out of the hospital. I thought yeah, fancy tuna casserole! No canned soups, no crushed up snack foods, lots of fresh vegetables. That’s what I’ll do. Then I realized I wasn’t at all in the mood for tuna, so I adjusted my mental menu — swapping ham steak for the tuna — and shuffled off to the grocery store.

Measurements are rough because I did this on the fly, but I’ll try and give you an idea. Just go with what you think you’ll like (and what will reasonably fill a 2 quart casserole dish).

This all comes together around the same time (you’ll have three pans on the stove top at once), so do all your chopping before you start cooking. And turn on a pot of water to boil. And preheat the oven to 400.

INGREDIENTS

  • About a cup of fresh, sliced shiitake mushrooms
  • Half a red onion, sliced into long strips
  • A “vidalia salad onion” cut into rounds and separated. (I love these things. They look like giant green onions and are so tasty. If you can’t find them, just use the rest of the red onion.)
  • One leek, sliced into crescent moon pieces
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • Ham steak, cut into cubes. I used half of one large steak.
  • Noodles (I used one package of fresh linguine; use about as much as you’d use to make dinner for yourself plus a little leftover)
  • Fresh asparagus, cut into one-inch pieces
  • About a stick of butter
  • About 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1.5 tbs dijon mustard
  • About a teaspoon of flour
  • 1-2 cups sharp white cheddar, shredded
  • Panko breadcrumbs
  • Olive oil
  • Salt & Pepper to taste
  • In a large saute pan, melt some butter or heat some olive oil. Use it to sweat the liquid out from the onions, leeks, mushrooms and garlic. Once the veggies are starting to sweat, add the ham to the veg to brown.

    Once your water is boiling, throw in the noodles. When the pasta’s just a few minutes from being done, add the asparagus. You just want the asparagus to soften up a bit. No reason to start another pot of water boiling for something that will take about 2 minutes and end up in the same casserole anyway.

    While everything else is just finishing up, melt about half a stick of butter in a small sauce pan. Once melted, pour in roughly half a cup of heavy cream. We’re making something in beteween a bechamel and a roux here, so that means: once that’s bubbling, sprinkle in some flour as needed to thicken it up. When all that’s integrated, add the dijon mustard and let it all combine.

    All of the pieces are ready to go. In a big mixing bowl, toss the dijon roux over your noodles & asparagus. Next, add the cheese and toss that around. Then pour in the meat and veg and integrate it all together. Transfer it to the casserole dish. To add a little crunch on top, I put a layer of panko bread crumbs, moistoned with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. You should too!

    Bake at 400 for an hour. The smells coming out of the oven will be driving you absolutely mad. For that I recommend a glass of wine while you wait. When it’s done, the casserole should be bubbling and brown on top. Let it cool for a few minutes before serving. I had it with an arugula radish salad and a glass of Rioja.

3 responses to “Fancy Pants Casserole

  1. Oh this sounds so good! I normally am not one for casseroles, but I might have to give this one a try. I’ll probably infuse some oil with garlic and use that on the panko breadcrumbs — I can’t seem to get enough garlic!

  2. You really shouldn’t sweat your mushrooms (it makes them tough), and you should probably brown your ham first (if your pan is hot enough to brown the ham, your veggies won’t be sweating, they’ll be burning) then reduce the heat.

    Also, what does “in between a bechamel and a roux” mean? A roux is what you use to start a bechamel. There’s no such thing as ‘in between.’ What you should do is just make a bechamel. Make a roux, then add whole milk (not cream).

    – Just a chef trying to help.

  3. I did something very similar to this with chicken and matzoh instead of ham and noodles during passover. I used some potato starch as a thickener for the bechemal instead of flour.

    It was almost great,until I discovered the fact that I didn’t mix the starch very well in the slurry I added to the milk and butter. The light had just burned out in my windowless kitchen, so I was literally cooking in the dark. Chewing my way through a few grams of gelatinous starch made the whole thing go from delicious to disgusting. It was like one of those tapioca ball teas, but bigger and tasted like creamy chicken and asparagus. blech.

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