Casseroles are out. Skillet suppers are in.
Few dishes have been more maligned in the history of cookery than casseroles. Say "casserole" to a man in his 60s, and he is likely to have flashbacks of the canned mushroom soup, tuna and noodle casserole that his wife made so often in the early years of their marriage that he hasn't eaten a tuna sandwich or a bowl of mushroom soup since.When Aunt Grace announces she will contribute a casserole to the family reunion, everyone hopes it won't be the canned green bean and mushroom soup mixture she has brought for the past 10 years.
Those are but two examples of casseroles we may like to forget.
The casserole once was considered one of the grandest of a French chef's creations.
Alexandre Dumas, in his 1870 Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, asked, "What would the culinary art be without the casserole, its principal ornament?"
Dumas was referring to the food, not to a ceramic dish. Using the word casserole to mean an oven-proof baking dish is an American adaptation that came with the proliferation of pottery factories in the early 1900s.
In classical cooking, a casserole was a showy food presentation, such as rice molded in a form and filled with a stew of some kind before baking.
John Nott's Cook's Dictionary, published in 1726, has two recipes for casseroles. The first calls for a deep dish lined with rice and filled with a stew of mushrooms, veal sweetbreads, coxcombs, artichoke bottoms, truffles and morels. The second recipe is for a hash made of leftover meat, served in a hollowed-out loaf of bread.
Enter the skillet supper, which is receiving a warm '90s welcome, though basically it delivers the same thing: It's a mixture of foods prepared and served in the same cooking vessel. The casserole is a baked dish. The skillet supper is cooked on top of the stove.
Skillet creations usually bring together more foods than the casserole, which is often one or two items such as au gratin potatoes, broccoli with rice, macaroni and cheese, or frozen vegetables baked with a canned soup sauce.
Skillet suppers usually contain less meat and more vegetables and grains, putting them in line with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid.
Families who use the pyramid as a guide to healthful meal-planning consume more bread, cereal, rice and pasta than any other food groups. Those foods are the base of the pyramid, with a recommendation of six to 11 servings daily. Most one-dish meals, including skillet suppers, are based on rice, pasta and other grains.
The USDA's recommendation of three to five vegetable servings a day also comes to the fore in skillet meals. Vegetables, particularly those available during the home garden season, are easily mixed and matched with what's in the refrigerator or at the market.
For example, summer squash, zucchini, mushrooms and onions can be stir-fried before couscous or rice is added to the dish.
Meat is usually stretched in skillet combinations, which again follows the USDA's guidelines of just two to three 3-ounce servings a day.
Cooking and serving in the same top-of-the-stove utensil is popular with families in which meal preparation time is limited. And although skillet suppers are easy and economical to make from scratch, there are many packaged products that give the busy home cook a head start.
Little oil is needed in one-dish skillet meals because there is moisture in the vegetables and the grains.
Most of the preparation, beginning with the sauteing of vegetables, is done in the skillet, which eliminates pan washing. There is also the assurance of serving hot food when it goes from stove to table.
Nonstick, heavy-duty pans are best for one-dish meal preparation. Old-fashioned cast iron and stainless steel conduct heat well, which is important to prevent hot spots that could scorch food. Newer models that have been treated with nonstick coatings and carry Tefal, Teflon and Silverstone trademarks also are recommended.
Several textures and flavors, including chicken, white beans and spinach, are combined in this one-dish supper that goes together easily and quickly. If there's fresh rosemary in the herb garden, be sure to add it. Otherwise, dried rosemary adds a nice seasoning.
From "Simply Healthful Skillet Suppers" by Andrea Chesman (Chapters Books, $9.95).
TURKEY HAM SKILLET
2 cups cooked rice
1 teaspoon margarine
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 pound chopped turkey ham
1/4 pound sliced fresh mushrooms
1/2 cup green peas
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
3/4 teaspoon lemon pepper seasoning
1/4 cup water
Prepare rice. If pre-packaged rice is used, 1 bag, boiled in water, is the correct amount. Cook onion in melted margarine over medium heat, stirring until tender. Stir in remaining ingredients, except cooked rice. Reduce heat to low and simmer until water is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Stir in rice and heat. Stir gently to mix rice with other ingredients.
CHICKEN AND SPINACH WITH WHITE BEANS
1 tablespoon olive oil, divided use
1 to 11/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into bite-size pieces
2 celery stalks, chopped fine
4 garlic cloves, or less, minced
2 shallots, or use green onions
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes, or use fresh
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup defatted chicken broth
1 15-ounce can cannellini (white kidney beans), drained and rinsed
1 12-ounce package fresh spinach, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
10 brine-cured black olives, chopped
Heat 2 teaspoons olive oil in large nonstick or cast-iron skillet over medium high heat. Add chicken and saute until firm and white. Remove from skillet; keep warm. Reduce heat to medium and add remaining 1 teaspoon oil. Add celery, garlic, and onion and saute about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and rosemary and simmer 3 minutes.
Dissolve cornstarch in chicken broth and add to skillet. Bring to a boil and cook until sauce is thickened. Add cannellini beans and chicken; heat through. Just before serving, add spinach to skillet and toss until wilted, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with olives. Serve at once. Yields 4 to 5 servings.