"The Casserole Queens Make-A-Meal Cookbook: Mix and Match 100 Casseroles, Salads, Sides and Desserts" by Crystal Cook and Sandy Pollock (Clarkson Potter, $17.99).
Most families are as familiar with "casserole night" as they are with "meat loaf night," "spaghetti night" or any other evening made easier with a well-loved yet simple staple.
Fortunately, Crystal Cook and Sandy Pollock (a.k.a. the Casserole Queens) are even more familiar with that delicious drill than most. They've been delivering casseroles in Austin, Texas, for almost 10 years and wrote a bestselling basic casserole book along the way, as well as a column for Woman's Day magazine.
What do they know that we may not? First, they may be more creative, not content to rely on a few dog-eared family recipes that are well loved but get boring over time. Try their innovative specialty made from baked gnocchi (mini dumplings), which, like many recipes, also includes a helpful tip: "Did you know that the ridges on gnocchi aren't just for decoration? They actually make it easier for the sauce to cling to the dumplings." Or, if your family is usually uninterested, slide a serving of "mashed potato pizza" casserole under their noses.
If it sounds like — as old-fashioned casseroles often were — the Casserole Queens' choices are starch- and carbohydrate-laden, that's not altogether true. Both of these dishes are also chock-full of fresh vegetables and herbs, such as broccoli florets, tomatoes and green onions in the mashed potato dish, and onion, red bell pepper, tomatoes, garlic cloves, tomatoes and a full half cup of torn fresh basil leaves in the gnocchi one.
There are a lot more fresh ingredients and recipes on the menu than that. This time out, the Casserole Queens have created mix-and-match meals rather than just filling the casserole dish. They suggest the native Italian gnocchi casserole be paired with their Caprese salad or super spinach side dish.
In order to hold the attention of any family, there are even gooey dessert pairings, such as buttermilk cake with malted chocolate frosting and a heavenly angel food cake with vanilla strawberry sauce.
What's most impressive, though, is that when you pare away all of the sides and decadent desserts, you still have another round of casseroles that are sure to woo and soothe your family for years.
MASHED POTATO PIZZA CASSEROLE
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups mashed potatoes, leftover or homemade (see Note)
2 1 / 2 cups fresh or frozen broccoli florets (thawed and drained if frozen)
2 Roma tomatoes, chopped
2 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese (8 ounces)
6 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
3 green onions, green parts only, sliced, for garnish
Yields 8 to 10 servings.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Brush a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish with 1 / 2 tablespoon of the olive oil and press the mashed potatoes along the bottom. Brush the top of the potatoes with the remaining 1 / 2 tablespoon olive oil. Bake for 30 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove the crust from the oven and keep the oven on.
Carefully cover the potato crust evenly with the broccoli, tomatoes, cheese and bacon. Bake the pizza for 15 to 20 more minutes, or until the cheese has melted. Garnish with the green onions, slice up and serve.
Note: In addition to including a mashed potato recipe in the book, the Casserole Queens write: "Turn your leftover mashed potatoes into a delicious crust for a tasty casserole spin on a deep-dish pizza! Don't worry if your mashed potatoes were seasoned with herbs or Parmesan cheese — we think seasoning will only enhance the flavor of the 'crust.'"
CREAMY MASHED POTATOES
2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
Salt, to taste
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 / 4 cup heavy cream, warmed
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Yields 4 cups.
Put the potatoes in a saucepan and cover them with cold, salted water.
Set the pan over high heat and bring to a boil.
Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes.
Carefully drain the potatoes and mash them with the butter and cream until smooth.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.Lisa Messinger is a first-place winner in food writing from the Association of Food Journalists and the author of seven food books, including "Mrs. Cubbison's Best Stuffing Cookbook" and "The Sourdough Bread Bowl Cookbook." She also writes the Creators News Service "After-Work Gourmet" column. To find out more about Lisa Messinger and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.