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From breakfast to dessert, the once-humble casserole is ready for its close-up.The Globe and Mail

Think of casseroles as the new sheet pan dinners. From daytime TV cooking segments to viral recipes (a simple baked feta pasta has racked up millions of views on TikTok), the oven-baked one-dish meal is back. Historically, casseroles – which refers to both the prepared dish and the vessel in which it is cooked – were used to stretch dollars while using modern convenience foods during times of economic depression. If you had a pan, a can and a plan, you likely had a casserole.

Lasagna, macaroni and cheese, tuna noodle or easy asparagus (three cans asparagus, two cans cream of celery soup, one container French fried onions): Casseroles were made to be dumped, stirred, baked, served, saved and reheated. Handy for toting comforting meals to all manner of events – potlucks, shivas, church suppers, you name it – they never really went away, but they haven’t exactly evolved either.

That’s changing. These days if you’re making a casserole as a nutritious meal that’ll feed the family, it’s about a nice balance of vegetables, carbohydrates and protein. In other words, say goodbye to canned green beans and condensed mushroom soup, and hello to a crop of new casseroles that taste better while still hitting all the nostalgic high notes. And they remain convenient – a bag of tater tots here, a jar of refried beans there – and are inflation busters, too. (Is there anything the casserole can’t do?)

While the casseroles of yore have often played second fiddle to the centre of the plate, these are the main event, full of fresher ingredients and heartwarming flavours. From breakfast to dessert, the once-humble casserole is ready for its close-up.

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Steakhouse casseroleLiam Mogan/The Globe and Mail

Steakhouse casserole

(Serves 4-6)

With quality ground beef hit with steak spice then layered with mushrooms and caramelized onions, creamed spinach and a finishing crown of crisp tater tots, this casserole is like a steakhouse experience with all the trimmings.

For Beef:

  • 1lb ground sirloin
  • 1 tsp steak spice
  • 3 tsp Worcestershire
  • ½ cup beef broth
  • 1 tsp cornstarch mixed with 2 tsp cold water
  • Salt to taste

For Mushrooms and Onions:

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 medium sweet white onion, chopped
  • 454 g package white or cremini mushrooms, sliced
  • Sea salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tbsp cognac or brandy

For Creamed Spinach:

  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 small cooking onion, minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • ½ tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 tbsp flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • ½ cup whipping cream
  • ½ cup grated mozzarella cheese
  • ¼ cup cream cheese
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg
  • 300 g package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry of liquid
  • Frozen tater tots, enough to cover top (about half an 800g bag), defrosted
  • Chives for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 425F.

In a large skillet, cook ground beef over medium heat, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. Season with steak spice and Worcestershire and cook until no pink remains, about 5-6 minutes. Drain fat, add broth and cornstarch slurry and stir into pan with drained beef. Cook over medium heat for 1-2 minutes more or until mixture is a bit saucy. Taste for seasoning and add salt if needed. Remove to a bowl, set aside and wipe out skillet.

Place skillet back over medium heat, add olive oil and butter, let butter foam then add chopped onion. Sauté until soft and starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Add sliced mushrooms and sauté until water evaporates, about 10 minutes, stirring now and then. Season with salt and pepper and deglaze pan with cognac or brandy. Taste for seasoning and remove to a bowl, set aside and wipe out skillet.

Place skillet back over medium-low heat, melt butter and sauté onion and garlic for 6-8 minutes or until onion is soft. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle flour overtop and stir with a wooden spoon until flour is toasty, about a minute, then stir in milk and cream, stirring constantly. Add mozzarella, cream cheese, Parmesan and nutmeg, stir until thickened, about 5 minutes, then add squeeze-dried spinach and stir to combine.

It’s time to build the casserole. Add the ground beef mixture to the bottom of a greased 8x8-inch baking dish in an even layer. Add mushroom mixture in a nice even layer over the beef, then spoon the creamed spinach layer over the mushrooms, smoothing into an even layer. Artfully place defrosted tater tots overtop, then pop casserole in the middle rack of the oven, uncovered, and bake for 25-30 minutes or until tater tots are browned and casserole is hot. Top with snipped chives and serve at once.

Tip: Substituting the ground sirloin with more affordable regular ground beef is totally acceptable and delicious.

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Chilaquiles casseroleLiam Mogan/The Globe and Mail

Chilaquiles casserole

(Serves 4-6)

Can’t make it to Mexico this winter? Let the vacation come to breakfast. Start with corn tortilla chips doused in green salsa. The refried beans and fried eggs provide the protein while the avocado, queso and cilantro provide beauty and grace. Here, you have the option of making your own verde sauce or using a jar from the supermarket. So, you can make breakfast superfast, or simply fast.

  • 1 350 g bag sturdy corn tortilla chips (such as Que Pasa, or better still from your local tortilleria or Latin food shop – or homemade)
  • 1 455 mL jar green Mexican sauce (or homemade verde sauce, recipe follows)
  • 1 454 g can black refried beans
  • 2 tsp vegetable oil
  • 6 large eggs
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 avocados, sliced
  • ¼ cup cilantro leaves
  • 1 large jalapeno, thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup chopped sweet onion
  • 3 oz crumbled queso or feta
  • 1 lime, wedged, for garnish
  • Crema or sour cream for serving (optional)

Preheat oven to 400F.

To a 9x13 baking dish, add the bag of tortilla chips and gently toss with sauce to evenly coat chips.

Remove refried beans from can, place in a bowl and microwave to warm, about 1 minute. Place dollops of beans around casserole then gently toss. Bake in preheated oven for 8-10 minutes or just until warm, while you fry the eggs.

To fry eggs, to a large non-stick skillet add vegetable oil and heat over medium. Crack 3 eggs onto pan and cook until desired doneness, about 2 minutes, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Repeat with remaining three eggs. Place eggs on top of baked tortilla chips and garnish artfully with avocado, cilantro, onion, queso and lime wedges, with crema or sour cream on the side. Serve at once.

Verde sauce: In a blender combine one 28 oz can of tomatillos with ½ cup chopped white onion, ½ cup cilantro, juice of a lime, a chopped jalapeno pepper and salt to taste. Blitz until smooth and use the whole batch in Chilaquiles recipe above. (Makes about 3 cups.)

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Ottolenghi-inspired casseroleLiam Mogan/The Globe and Mail

Ottolenghi-inspired casserole

(Serves 6)

Chef and cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi taught us new and unexpected ways of seeing vegetables, making them vibrant and crave-worthy. This casserole is an ode to him. Great served warm or at room temperature, it’ll brighten up any grey winter day. And it just happens to be vegan.

  • 2 lb butternut squash, peeled, seeded and chopped into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup tricolour quinoa, rinsed
  • 1 540 mL can chickpeas

For Pomegranate Dressing:

  • 2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1 tbsp honey (or agave)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

For Tahini Sauce:

  • 2 tbsp tahini
  • ½ lemon, juiced
  • 1 tbsp warm water
  • ½ cup chopped parsley
  • ½ cup shelled pistachios, roughly chopped
  • 1 pomegranate, seeds (arils) removed and reserved
  • ½ cup crispy shallots (available at Asian grocers or use supermarket crispy onions)

Preheat oven to 400F.

To make butternut squash, place cubed squash in well-oiled 9x13 casserole dish and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and cumin seeds. Roast for 30-35 minutes, stirring a couple of times, until squash is tender and browned. Set aside.

While squash is roasting, in a medium pot over medium-high heat bring 2 cups of water with quinoa to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 15-20 minutes or until quinoa is tender. Remove lid, fluff quinoa with a fork and tip into casserole dish the roasted squash is resting in. Add chickpeas and toss to combine.

In a small bowl whisk together pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, honey, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle over quinoa mixture and toss to coat with dressing.

In small bowl stir together tahini with lemon juice and water. Stir until smooth then drizzle over quinoa casserole mixture.

Now comes the fun part. Artfully top the casserole with parsley, chopped pistachios, pomegranate seeds and crispy shallots. Present to oohs and ahhs then gently toss before serving.

Tip: You can buy pomegranate molasses at health food or Middle Eastern stores, gourmet shops or online.

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Banana split casseroleLiam Mogan/The Globe and Mail

Banana split casserole

Serves 6

Let’s call this one a dessert casserole. An easy banana split-flavoured bread pudding is topped with a fresh banana split so that you get every temperature and texture in one bite. It’s got retro appeal so you can go basic with canned whipped cream and neon maraschino cherries, or feel free to fancify it with amarena cherries and freshly whipped cream. Or, split the difference.

  • 1 loaf (5-7 oz) stale baguette, chopped or torn into bits to make 5-6 cups
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • ½ cup milk chocolate chips
  • ½ cup chopped pecans, toasted (plus a handful reserved for garnish)
  • ¼ cup maraschino cherries, chopped (plus a whole one reserved for garnish)
  • 2 large bananas, one cut into thin slices, one sliced lengthways (for garnish)
  • Several scoops of vanilla ice cream or favourite flavours of choice
  • Whipped cream (1/4 cup freshly whipped or from a can) for garnish
  • Milk Chocolate sauce (recipe follows)

Butter an 8-by-8 baking pan.

In a large bowl combine bread, milk, sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla, chocolate chips, pecans, cherries and thinly sliced banana. Mixture will be almost like a batter, or oatmeal. Add a touch more milk if it’s not loose enough.

Pour mixture into the greased baking pan and place in oven. Turn oven on to 350F and bake until it’s brown on top and smelling like heaven, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Let cool for 20 minutes or so before placing a sliced banana on top and loading it with the scoops of ice cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, pecans and a cherry on top, a la a banana split. Alternatively, you can slice the casserole into squares and top individual servings with ice cream and toppings. Read the crowd.

Milk chocolate sauce

(Makes 1 cup)

Heat ½ cup whipping cream (35 per cent) to the point just before it boils, remove from heat and stir in 6 oz good quality milk chocolate that has been broken into chunks. Stir until smooth, let cool and enjoy. (Note: Sauce can be covered and refrigerated for up to a week. It will firm up in refrigerator so to get it runny again, pop in the microwave for 10 seconds and stir, or gently reheat on stovetop.)

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