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The Great Debate: Do Casseroles Deserve a Place at Our Dining Tables? Here Are Two Takes

Photos by striatic

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary , the word "casserole" was first used in 1708, but the origin of the word can be traced to a much earlier time. It comes from the French word for saucepan, which possibly has its roots in the Greek kyathos , which means ladle, bowl or cup. The dictionary describes casserole as "an earthenware or glass baking dish, usually with a cover, in which food can be cooked and then served" and "the food baked and served in such a dish, typically rice, potatoes or macaroni together with meat or fish and vegetables."

Sounds innocuous enough.

So why are people so divided on casseroles? Poll any group, and you're bound to find both people who love casseroles and people who cannot stand them. We found such a divide in our own newsroom, so we decided to nominate one pro-casserole person and one anti-casserole person to duke it out.

Which side are you on?

This sausage scrambled egg casserole is perfect for breakfast, lunch or dinner!
This sausage scrambled egg casserole is perfect for breakfast, lunch or dinner!
Photo by Steven Depolo

Pro-casserole by Molly Dunn Growing up, I always craved a hearty shepherd's pie on cold winter nights. There's something about a warm helping of mashed potatoes with ground beef, carrots, peas, onions and cheese that could always warm my heart and my stomach.

Casseroles, or hotdishes (for those from the north), have stood the test of time. While food trends and culinary styles have progressed and changed each year, casseroles are still popular dishes among families, households and the community.

A casserole is one of the easiest ways to welcome someone to the neighborhood, lend a helping hand during a rough patch in someone's life, or simply feed a bunch of hungry mouths any night of the week. Pasta, chicken, ground beef, potatoes, rice, vegetables and everything else in between can be made into a casserole. No need to worry about picky eaters: There's something for everyone. Casseroles are one of the most popular items brought to family gatherings, picnics, funerals and potluck lunches. And there's a reason (actually, several) why people love them.

First and foremost, a casserole is a simple dish to make, and easy to prepare in advance. For those who don't have time to prepare a full dinner for their family when they get home from work, a casserole is their saving grace. Assemble it the night before and pop in the oven when you get home -- dinner is ready in a snap.

Take, for instance, shepherd's pie. Simply brown the beef in a skillet, add the vegetables, tomatoes and seasoning, place the mixture into a casserole dish, cover with mashed potatoes and cheese, then bake for just 15 minutes. Voilà! You have a hearty, comforting and scrumptious casserole. You'll get several servings out of one dish and will still have some for leftovers.

You want Italian? Oh yeah, there's a casserole for that.
You want Italian? Oh yeah, there's a casserole for that.

While some people instantly think of tuna noodle casserole as the stereotypical "casserole dish," they don't realize that many of their favorite dishes are in fact casseroles -- the word "casserole" doesn't need to be in the title for a dish to be considered one, you know. Lasagna, mac and cheese, chicken potpie and enchiladas are all casseroles.

Your favorite celebrity chefs also have sophisticated versions of classic casserole dishes, such as Alton Brown's Curry Chicken Pot Pie or Emeril Lagasse's Twice Baked Potato Casserole. Each of these uses real ingredients; no condensed soups here.

Casseroles are also not limited to dinner; they can be made for breakfast and dessert. Scrambled eggs with bacon, sausage and cheese sitting on top of an English muffin or biscuit halves make for a perfect breakfast casserole. The individual servings from each English muffin or biscuit half makes things easy for large families or social gatherings. Desserts can also easily be made in a casserole form. Use a large casserole dish or small individual dishes for bread pudding, cobbler and upside-down cake or molten lava chocolate cake.

While casseroles are easy-to-make, comforting money-savers and come in a variety of forms, the most important reason they're wonderful is their ability to bring families and friends together.

For those of you in favor of casseroles, what are your favorite recipes?

 

DO NOT WANT.
DO NOT WANT.
Photo by Miia Ranta

Anti-casserole by Kaitlin Steinberg If you read my list of the top 5 worst Thanksgiving side dishes last week, you probably already know what I'm about to admit. I hate casseroles. All of them. I cannot think of a single casserole that I would seek out in favor of, say, a burger or a salad or any of the individual components that make up a casserole. I have never liked them. And I believe I can say with some certainty that I never will.

I grew up in a small family of healthy gourmet cooks who never saw the need to make anything large enough to fit in a 9-by-13-inch baking pan, aside from the occasional cake. If we were going to a potluck, we generally brought salads, assuming that everything else at the event would be a grayish shade of Cream of Mushroom soup. As a child I sometimes wondered where the green bean casserole was at Thanksgiving or why I didn't get to eat marshmallows for dinner like some of my friends with their sweet potato casserole. Now that I'm older, I get it.

What have you done to that poor macaroni?!
What have you done to that poor macaroni?!

A casserole covers a multitude of sins, and not in a good way. Got crappy canned green beans? Throw 'em in a casserole! Trying to figure out how to combine pasta, cheese, potatoes, fried onions, bacon, squash and mushrooms? Casserole! I prefer my food fresh and demonstrative of its own unique flavor, thank you very much. I don't think I've ever had anything in casserole form that couldn't be improved upon by grilling, sautéing, roasting, braising, smoking ... well, you get the picture. I'll take taste over convenience any day.

Now, there are some foods baked in ceramic dishes that I can get behind, but I don't refer to them as casseroles. Scalloped sweet potatoes, baked macaroni and cheese, lasagne. All of these things technically fit the definition of "casserole," but in my mind, they're different because they (generally) don't make use of canned ingredients. Lasagne certainly isn't prepared out of convenience, and ease of creation is one of the elements in my definition of casserole. If you want to buy fresh green beans, make your own cream of mushroom soup and fry your own onions into crispy little strings for green bean casserole, you're no longer making it because it's simple and easy. But I maintain that each of those ingredients would be better on their own than mixed.

A few final arguments in opposition to casseroles: Mexican spaghetti. Hamburger Helper. Tuna.


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