~ Tuscany Casserole with Grilled Mozzarella crust ~

Comfort food is the ultimate food. Having a casserole is so endearing, the flavours are comforting, they are warm and exciting and the whole concoction of the dish is absolute love. Yes, it’s not for the diet hearted and Yes, it’s loaded with cheesy goodness, which you can’t do a casserole without, but it’s one of those foods that you just can’t and shouldn’t miss out enjoying; pleasurable indulgence is what it really is. The whole idea of a casserole screams comfort and warmth and a warmer embrace of pleasure that it gives your palate. It is an absolute crowd pleaser and an absolute delight of left-over next-day breakfast or brunch. The best thing about casseroles is that the more they sit, the more the flavours of the dish marry each other happily and that is why, a casserole, the next day always tastes better. Well, that’s what I personally believe and have experienced.

Before, I come to the recipe, a little “casserole history” lesson is in order. Those of you who have been reading my blogs, must know by now that I love my books, I love to read and I love exploring, not just flavours of a dish but how it came to be. I am in a whole other world when I read and I love combining my world of reading with my world of cooking and hence my Blog came to be. Hence, let’s begin;

The Spanish Paella, French Cassoulet, Italian Lasagna, American Mac and cheese and British Pot Pies are all siblings of the casserole. They are all an inspired version of it. Casserole is basically a French word meaning “sauce-pan” wherein the food is cooked and served altogether in one pot. The Casserole dish date backs to the 13th century to the courts of King of Naples, Italy. The most ancient of cookery books named “Liber de Coquina” (the book of cookery) has preserved the Medieval recipe of “de lasanis” (lasagna) where the chefs of the court would form a bread dough and cut in into thin sheets before boiling them and layering them with cheese and mild spices. The recipe has since come a long way and which was introduced to the New World by Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, after his stay in Italy in the 1700’s. He brought back a pasta machine, which his daughter Mary Randolph used to make a similar dish of pasta sheets, boiled and layered with grated Parmesan cheese and spices and became a staple in the White house kitchen. The recipe was later published in her cookbook “the Virginia housewives” in 1824. Needless to say, the dish henceforth, was embraced whole heartedly by the whole nation. Since then, with the changing world order, the vast stretched world started to compress and one culinary frame frateenized with another and gave birth to inpired casserole dishes in every region of the world and we have Italy to thank for that.

Coming to the recipe, This is the ultimate comfort food cooked with meat chunks, spinach and mushrooms engulfed with a creamy and cheesy béchamel sauce and grilled in the oven to give a crusty and grilled mozzarella top. This casserole is packed full of flavor with little effort and an extravagant outcome. There is really nothing to it, it is cooked in three stages; the filling, the bechamel sauce and the grilling of the crust. It takes hardly an hour and it’s done with colours of the setting sun. The fastest way to cook this is to add the Bechamel sauce to the filling once it’s completely cooked and pour the whole mix in a casserole dish or a cast iron skillet.

Oh! just on the side not about cast iron skillets and cookware; they are absolutely amazing. In all honesty, they are extremely expensive but I strolled into Sainsbury one day and lucky enough, I found mine on 50% off. Now, that was a bargain I was in mood of missing out on. These are small enough for a 2 person serving but they are absolutely gorgeous, albeit a little heavy.

Coming back, the filling is extremely versatile and you can choose to play around with it and its true that if ypu “give two cooks the same recipe; it is fascinating to observe how, like handwriting, their results differ. After you cook a dish repeatedly, you begin to understand it. Then you can reinvent it a bit and make it yours. A written recipe can be useful, but sometimes notes scribbled in the margin are the key to a superlative rendition. Each new version may inspire improvisation based on fresh understanding. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as all that, but such exciting minor epiphanies keep cooking alive” (David Tanis; heart of the Artichoke: and other kitchen journeys). Casseroles are just one of those dishes that embrace any kind of variation of flavour. You can make it genuinely English or load it abundantly with Asian flavours and the flavours will marry into each other wholeheartedly. It’s basically like tossing everything together that becomes a casserole. I made the filling with chicken cubes, mushrooms and spinach. You can add olives and bell peppers; even sausages. So, as I said, play around with it. You can’t really taste the spinach much but it really does add to flavour and it’s a nice cheat to get the kids eating it. Although sometimes, if you have kids like mine, who are clever, they will call you out on the spinach; kids these days I tell you are born wise.

The Bechamel sauce is your basic sauce and it’s very quick to make. Once that is cooked, pour the whole sauce and fold in the filling and please do not hate me when I tell you, add cream and cheese on top, because let’s face it, the oozing goodness of cheese is from that creamy indulgence of the casserole because as Tori Spelling says, “I make lots of casserole that have protein, veggies, carbs and good fats altogether”. So, yes don’t skip it but if you do decide to skip it, even then it will be just as lovely and luscious to enjoy. I also added orzo to it which is a rice shaped pasta.

I added it because I just really like the lumpy cotton texture to my bite. If you have no access to it, use elbow macaroni or any mini pasta or just not use any at all. It is all up to your preference. Like I mentioned, casseroles are extremely versatile, jib jab with ingredients and flavours here and there and amaze yourself. It can be your very own signature dish and accumulate great compliments because let’s face it “there are only three things women need in life: food, water and compliments” (Chris Rock).

In all honesty, a stringed cheese pull away pizza or a casserole is something that draws me towards it and I am utterly beguiled to indulge even if I don’t want to. How can you really say no to that.

Another great thing about this dish is that it can all be prepared a day before. So, if you are pressed for time, make this before hand and bake it the next day and that goes for hosting as well. This is a gorgeous side dish at a dinner party table, not to mention a favourite pick for the kids and I always prepare the dish a day in advance which makes things on the day of event so much more easier knowing I have one less thing to worry about.

All you need to do now is to enjoy the experience the spontaneous joy that this dish elicits.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients ~

1. Chicken boneless cut into small cubes — 760g
2. Onion — 2
3. Garlic clove — 2
4. Oregano — 2 tsp
5. Thyme — 2 tsp
6. Paprika — 2 tsp
7. Black pepper — 1 tsp
8. All-spice — ½ tsp
9. Red pepper flakes — 1 tsp
10. Tomato paste — 2 tbsp
11. Tomato — 2
12. Mushrooms — 500g
13. Spinach — 4 cups
14. Green chilli — 2
15. Mustard Paste — 2 tsp
16. Cream — 8 tbsp
17. Egg — 2
18. Mozzarella cheese — 1 cup
19. Basil leaves — 2 tbsp
20. Oil — 2 tbsp

21. Orzo — 1/4 cup (optional)

22. Butter– 1 tsp

Béchamel sauce

1. Butter — 4 tbsp
2. Flour — 4 tbsp
3. Milk — 1 ¼ cup
4. Salt — ½ tsp
5. Black pepper — ¾ tsp
6. All-spice — ½ tsp
7. Cheddar cheese — 1 cup
8. Nutmeg powder — ½ tsp

Method ~

1. Prepare the béchamel sauce

a. In a sauce pan, melt the butter with a little oil and add the flour and cook for 1 minute.

b. Add the milk and stir continuously to prevent lumps.

c. Add in salt, black pepper, all spice, nutmeg and cheddar cheese.
d. Mix to combine and let the sauce thicken to a semi-liquid consistency (it shouldn’t be too thick, add more milk if it’s too thick)

e. Set aside.

2. Prepare the filling

a. In a deep skillet, melt the butter and add the chopped onions. Sauté for 1 minute.

b. Add the minced garlic and add the chicken cubes.

c. Add salt and pepper, red chili flakes and paprika and let cook for 6-8 minutes.

d. Add the oregano, thyme, tomato paste, mustard paste and chopped green chilies and cook for a minute.

e. Add in the chopped tomatoes and mushrooms and cook for another 3-4 minutes.

f. Add in the spinach and cook for 2 minutes.

g. Turn off the heat and set aside.

h. In a small sauce pan heat up 1 tsp of butter with a little oil and fry the orzo pasta until slightly golden and add 3/4 cup of water. Add in a little salt and let it cook until the pasta becomes soft. This takes about 4-5 minutes. Drain excess water and add it to the meat filling.

i. Pour all the béchamel sauce in the filling and mix together.

j. Now add the cream and the beaten egg and mix.

3. Baking the casserole

a. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.

b. In a baking dish, pour the casserole filling and top it with mozzarella cheese.

c. Sprinkle chopped basil leaves on top and a little more paprika.

d. Drizzle with a little oil.

e. Bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes.

~ Happy Foodieating ~

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