Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Housewifery: The Casserole Project

We received a copy of Best of Country Casseroles from a loving and beloved relative for Christmas.  It's the kind of book that reminds me a lot of the 1940's - 1970's cookbooks I inherited from my book-hoarding grandfather when he passed away.  He was a cook in the Navy during WWII and loved to putter in the kitchen his entire life.  His speciality was hearty, plentiful fare rich with starch and salt and easy on the budget.  He cooked with a lot of condensed soups and processed foods to save time and money while stretching more expensive ingredients such as proteins.  And, God help him, he had an inexplicable habit of adding yellow food coloring to his dishes if he thought them too wan.  I particularly remember a delicious and vividly saffron pot of chicken and dumplings and a rice casserole as bright and merry as the sun itself.  And so, being a culinary product of his times and professional experience, my grandfather favored cookbooks written for time-pressed home cooks, housewives mostly.  On lazy Sundays I still like to flip through their pages and wonder at the appeal of salmon loaf (one of my mom's favorite dishes from her youth), tuna noodle casserole (one of my childhood favorites), and of putting chopped hardboiled eggs and fried chow mein noodles on everything imaginable.

Clearly, the foodie in me cries, this is not good food.  And the amateur nutrition student in me adds that this food isn't food at all.  Aside from a good source of protein and carbohydrates, can one even call some of these dishes food?  Michael Pollan wouldn't, so can I?  And yet I do find it appealing.  SLB and I tried our damnedest to be snobs about Best of Country Casseroles and to make fun of it, but we both found ourselves salivating over the pages of glossily photographed dishes including every kind of canned creamed soup, piles of frozen vegetables, and heaps of preserved meats.  For as fancy as our palates may have become, this is our home food.  This is what we were raised on, and, in spite of our newfound culinary sophistication, we like it.  It's in our blood, and, sadly, it's in our arteries, too.

Thus, the idea to begin cooking from this book that had been previously, snobbishly destined for the Goodwill pile took wing.  Enter The Casserole Project.  At first I wanted to cook one dish a week until I had completed the book in homage to Julie Powell's adventures with Julia Child's masterwork, but we quickly realized that we would outgrow our pants and die young if we did so.  So, there is no time limit to meet and no required number of recipes to consume.  The rule is only that the recipes must be cooked as exactly as possible.  No subbing olive oil for Crisco, and no adding Sriracha to anything that doesn't explicitly call for it.  And, let me assure you, NOTHING explicitly calls for it.

Our first attempt was the adorably named Brat 'n' Tot Bake.

Wonderfully, some of the recipes feature little narratives describing their inception.  Brat 'n' Tot's inventor, Jodi Gobrecht of Bucyrus, Ohio, writes "As a volunteer at our annual Bratwurst Festival, I could not have someone in my family who disliked bratwurst, so I developed this cheesy casserole for our son.  It's the only way he will eat them."  Now, this seemed a little pushy and controlling of Jodi, but I haven't encountered picky eating in my child yet, so who am I to judge?  And we like brats, we like Tots, and we like the name of her dish, so we dove right in.

SLB went to the market to gather the ingredients, which the checkout clerk commented on favorably stating that she should make a casserole herself for dinner.  Promising, yes?  Not until you read this list and consider its fat and sodium content.

1 pound uncooked bratwurst, casings removed
1 medium onion, chopped
1 can (10 3/4 oz) condensed cream of mushroom soup, undiluted
1 package (32 oz) frozen Tater Tots
2 cups (16 oz) sour cream
2 cups (8 oz) shredded cheddar cheese

"I will kill you."

The prospect of cooking with both an entire one pound tub of sour cream and two cups of cheddar cheese scared me, but we pressed on and followed the rest of the recipe.

Crumble bratwurst into a large skillet; add onion.  Cook over medium heat until meat is no longer pink; drain.  Stir in the soup.  Transfer to a greased (Why?  Why would it need more grease?) 13x9x2 inch baking dish, at which point it will look like this:

This reminds me of bad mornings after long nights at Earl's on the Ave.

Top with Tater Tots and sour cream.  Sprinkle with cheese, at which point it will look like this:

Sunny with 1950's optimism!

Bake, uncovered, at 350 for 35-40 minutes or until heated through and cheese is melted.  Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.  Yield: 6 servings.

Beautiful, isn't it?

When a dish doesn't fundamentally change after 40 minutes of cooking, you should fear it.

No.  No, it isn't.  And, sadly, it tasted as ugly as it looks.  On a scale of 1-10, 1 being inedible, 5 being public school cafeteria food, and 10 being a casserole of the Gods, SLB rated this a 3.  He said that the ingredients are good by themselves, and I agree.  A brat with a side of Tots would have been welcome, but, as SLB said, "the problem was that the purpose of the dish was associating a bunch of ingredients in a horrendous manner. It's such a shame to see tasty bratwurst go to waste."  Ever the economist and martyr, he had two helpings to make the most of what was destined shortly to be garbage.

Wads of unincorporated sour cream shellacked with greasy yellow cheese.

I gave this dish a 2.  You could eat it if you had to, but I didn't have to and so I didn't finish more than 5 or 6 bites of this unctuous, greasy mess.  There's a logical reason for that mouth-slickening sensation.  I crunched some numbers, and Brat 'n' Tot contains 782 calories and 56 grams of fat per serving. 

It really and truly did taste like what I imagine dog food tastes like.  So, the best part of the night was having this in my head.  (Thanks, Shannon, for teaching this to me on a van ride to Roslyn when I was about 7.  You da bomb!).

I really and truly cannot believe that this appealed to anyone's palate or that this would encourage any child that bratwurst was a good thing.  But, perhaps stupidly and certainly optimistically, I MUST believe that among these recipes is a gem or two.  Can human palates vary so widely that these dishes, which had to have been tested by editors as well as home cooks, can all be awful?  I mean, someone likes them, and not in an ironic beard-and-trucker-cap-and-PBR way, so why not us? 

Feasts of our fathers.

The Casserole Project will live on in our kitchen, on this blog, and in our arterial plaque.  If any of my loyal readers are interested in being taste testers, let me know.  I'd love to host you and include you in this worthy endeavor.


howpedestrian said...

Me me me!

Just, please, not on a night where the casserole includes sausagey substance. I'll be too biased to be a useful subject.

moraht said...

This is a horrible idea. Truly. Your worst idea to date.

Christina said...

howpedestrian - tell me your first name so i know who you are. if i should know this already, forgive me.

moraht - you only say this because you haven't heard my idea about churning pig butter. enough said on that topic.