Amid the shelves cluttered with tchotchkes and the Pepto-pink paneled dining room is a scent so familiar it conjures images of Mom in her floral apron. Who knew beef and cheese were such powerful forces?
Here, at La Casa Rosa in San Juan Bautista, Calif., they have been serving California Casserole, a take on the tamale pie, since 1935, when a gallon of gas cost a dime and a loaf of bread was 8 cents.
But the Italian polenta, fresh herbs and delicate French ramekin it is served in elevate the dish from a childhood staple to edible elegance.
“There’s something special about the flavors,” owner Charlie Shockey says. “It keeps people coming back for generations.”
Rumor has it that James Stewart and Kim Novak, who filmed scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” nearby, both dug it.
You don’t have to rewind to enjoy the classic joys of a casserole, that quintessential comfort food. It’s therapy in Pyrex, soothing the soul while satisfying even the fussiest eaters.
Lately, chefs have been infusing these lovingly baked one-dish dinners with modern flair by adding fresh herbs, exotic spices and local cheeses.
But that doesn’t mean you have to toss your canned soups just yet.
Retro is cool, after all, especially in the hands of Crystal Cook and Sandy Pollock, the popular self-styled Casserole Queens from Austin, Texas. The pair jazz up meatloaf with hoisin sauce and mandarin oranges. They give tuna noodle casserole a kick with cayenne pepper.
In “The Casserole Queens Cookbook” (Clarkson Potter, 208 pages, $17.99), Cook and Pollock share the recipes that landed them on the Food Network’s “Throwdown With Bobby Flay” and helped launch their casserole delivery company. The book features 100 twists on classics such as beef stroganoff and turkey tetrazzini, desserts such as Clementine Cake and brunch ideas that include a Ham and Cheese Skillet Casserole.
Experimenting is part of the fun, they say. While their recipes are designed to add flair to old favorites, the Casserole Queens, who deliver their made-to-order casseroles in full ’50s garb, say you don’t have to toss that cream of broccoli can.
“We’re not food snobs,” Cook says. “We realize some people don’t keep fresh herbs. So we’re not going to tell people they can’t use convenience products.”
But they do encourage sophisticated touches. The creamy sauce in their delicate Seafood Lasagne Rolls with Panko Crumb Topping gets a rich, nutty flavor from the addition of sherry. Fresh parsley adds color.
“You forget it’s a casserole because it’s not just a glob,” Pollock says. “These beautiful rolls are plated so nicely it could come out of any fancy restaurant.”
Ultimately, the Casserole Queens believe these dishes will draw busy families back to the dining table.
Erin Wade and Allison Arevalo share similar values. The focus at their Oakland, Calif., restaurant, Homeroom, is macaroni and cheese, the ultimate craveable one-dish wonder. They gussy up versions with Point Reyes Original Blue Cheese and Niman Ranch hot dogs. They serve seasonal veggie sides and source organic ingredients when possible.
But, after a successful year of business, they can say with confidence that even in the ingredient-conscious Bay Area, people don’t care about that stuff — at least when it comes to mac and cheese.
“They don’t care,” Wade says, a bit surprised. “They just want their mac. It’s nostalgic. Like pizza.”
Nostalgia is powerful. Executive chef Kim Alter of Oakland’s highbrow Haven has a self-proclaimed obsession with one-pot cookery. She trolls flea markets looking for vintage Le Creusets.
“You should see my house,” she says. “They’re everywhere.”
Her love affair with these one-pot wonders started on a trip to Europe.
Whenever hunger struck, Alter, formerly of Napa’s Ubuntu and Los Gatos’ famed Manresa, found herself popping into pubs for warm, gooey shepherd’s pie.
To create a shepherd’s pie worthy of Haven’s technique-driven menu, Alter brined pork butt for 24 hours before grinding it and cooking it down in a traditional mirepoix and thickening it with pig’s blood. Winter spices, fried garlic pieces and creamy potatoes completed the aromatic casserole. She’s currently experimenting with a one-pot confit chicken spiked with smoked pimenton.
Haven isn’t the only upscale restaurant to offer shepherd’s pie. Brendan Collins’ Waterloo & City in Los Angeles has its own elegant take. Collins combines parsnips with the potatoes, and tops his elegant take with buttered baby vegetables. The vegetables add freshness and a dash of horseradish adds bite, he says in “Made in America: Our Best Chefs Reinvent Comfort Food” by Lucy Lean (Welcome Books, 320 pages, $45).
The convenience of casseroles allows Alter to execute high-quality fare while keeping the kitchen running smoothly — and that makes everyone happy.
“It’s the type of cooking that you remember from home,” she says. “Mom put out a platter in the middle of the table and everyone had at it.”
Seafood Lasagna Rolls
Panko crumb topping:
½ cup panko breadcrumbs
½ cup unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
2 tablespoons shallots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
½ teaspoon fresh thyme
12 dried lasagna noodles
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, chopped
3 tablespoons flour
2 ½ teaspoons salt, divided
2 teaspoons white pepper, divided
1 cup bottled clam juice
½ cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons sherry
2 cups heavy cream
8 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, grated, divided
6 ounces fresh spinach
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 pound bay scallops
¾ pound cod, haddock, or other white fish fillets, cut into 1-inch cubes
½ pound lump crab meat
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1. Mix the topping ingredients together. Set aside.
2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly coat a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish with cooking spray.
3. Cook the lasagna noodles according to package instructions. Drain, rinse with cold water, and lay the noodles flat on a baking sheet.
4. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, melt butter. Add shallots and bell pepper; saute 3 minutes or until tender. Reduce heat to medium and whisk in flour, 1 ½ teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Cook 2 minutes, whisking.
5. Add clam juice, wine and sherry and cook, whisking, until a light sauce forms, 2-3 minutes. Add cream and cook, whisking frequently, until sauce thickens, about 5 minutes. Off heat, add 1 cup cheese and spinach; cook until wilted.
6. Rinse seafood and pat dry. In a large bowl, combine the seafood with parsley and 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Fold in 1 cup of the sauce.
7. Spread a heaping 1/3 cup seafood mixture on each noodle, leaving a ½-inch border on edges. Roll up each noodle.
8. Spread ½ cup sauce in the casserole. Arrange the lasagna rolls, seam-side down, in a snug single layer. Top with remaining sauce. Sprinkle with 1 cup cheese and crumb topping. Cover with foil, and bake 30 minutes, until bubbling and just cooked through.
9. Preheat broiler. Remove foil; broil casserole until crumbs are browned, 3-5 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
“The Casserole Queens Cookbook,” (Clarkson Potter, 208 pages, $17.99)
Mac the Goat
1 pound pasta
6 cups milk
6 tablespoons butter
8 tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons salt
8 ounces Jack cheese, shredded
8 ounces chevre
½ cup chopped scallions
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
Olive oil, for drizzling
1. Cook pasta and drain. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. Heat milk in a heavy pot until warm, but not boiling.
3. Melt the butter over medium heat in another pot. Add flour and cook, whisking constantly, for about 3 minutes.
4. Off heat, slowly add the warm milk to the butter-flour mixture, ½ cup at a time, whisking constantly. If you add it too quickly, the sauce will not thicken; too slowly, and it will thicken too quickly.
5. When the sauce is no longer thickening (3 to 4 cups of milk in), turn the heat back to medium, and continue to whisk. Continue adding warm milk ½ cup at a time. (For a thicker sauce, stop short of the 6 cup total.) Continue to heat and whisk until the sauce is the desired thickness, 5-10 minutes. It will get thicker when you add the cheese.
6. Add salt and cheese to sauce and heat gently over low heat. Add pasta and scallions when cheese is mostly melted.
7. Pour into a baking dish, and top with breadcrumbs. Bake for 5-10 minutes, or until bubbly. Drizzle with olive oil, and enjoy.
Erin Wade, Homeroom, Oakland, Calif.
Shepherd’s Pie with Buttered Baby Vegetables
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 leek, white part, chopped
4 celery stalks, chopped
2 medium shallots
1 ¼ pounds ground lamb shoulder
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 can (14 ounces) San Marzano plum tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato puree
1 ¼ cups lamb or beef stock
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
½ teaspoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, or to taste
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 ½ pounds potatoes, peeled and chopped
½ pound parsnips, peeled and chopped
9 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup milk
2 tablespoons creamed horseradish
¾ cup breadcrumbs
¼ cup grated Parmesan
Buttered baby vegetables:
6 baby carrots, peeled
3 baby turnips, peeled and quartered
6 cauliflower florets
6 baby zucchini
¼ cup English peas
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large saute pan, heat oil over medium heat and saute the onion, leek, celery and carrots until soft, 5 minutes.
2. Add ground lamb and brown, 8 minutes. Add flour to make a roux; cook 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
3. Add tomatoes, tomato puree, stock, bay leaf, rosemary and thyme. Simmer, covered, 30 minutes. Season with Worcestershire, salt and pepper to taste.
4. Meanwhile, make the topping. Boil potatoes and parsnips in water until soft. Drain and mash with butter and milk. Stir in horseradish and season with salt and pepper.
5. Spoon the meat mixture into an ovenproof dish. Top with potatoes, then breadcrumbs and cheese. Bake until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes.
6. Meanwhile, blanch the carrots, turnips, cauliflower, zucchini and peas in turn to retain the individual flavors. Plunge into iced water, then drain and set aside.
7. In a small saucepan, melt butter. Add ½ cup water to make an emulsion. Reheat the vegetables in the emulsion, season with salt and pepper, and drain. Arrange the buttered baby vegetables on top of the pie and serve.
Brendan Collins’ recipe from “Made in America” by Lucy Lean. Copyright 2011 Lucy Lean. Reprinted by permission of Welcome Books. madeinamericacookbook.com.