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THE HOME COOK

Casseroles: Slow and Easy

December 13, 1990|MARION CUNNINGHAM

There was a time when casseroles were the heart and mainstay of home cooking. Steaming hot, these communal, almost tribal dishes, were the most frequent centerpiece on the family table.

In our enthusiasm for the new, we tend to put aside tried and true concepts. I think we abandoned casseroles because we so wholeheartedly embraced the use of first-rate fresh ingredients, barely cooked, to capture a clean, natural taste.

It may well seem that there is a conflict between the healthful use of fresh ingredients and the long, slow oven-cooking of casseroles. But in reality, fresh and long-simmered are equally good--just different. Indeed, some leftovers used in casseroles often blossom forth with long cooking and are better than when they were first served fresh.

A good casserole takes two or more ingredients, a little liquid, some aromatic vegetables, perhaps some herbs, and patient oven simmering. The result is a rich, deep, well-rounded collaboration of tastes that is as smooth and fragrant and integrated as a fine perfume. James Beard always felt a casserole needed a crisp, raw salad as a foil to its mellowness.

A bonus of casseroles is that they benefit by reheating: Their goodness endures. I think their disappearance has left a gap in our social amenities. There is no gift more welcome to an ailing friend, a bereaved family or a church, school, or potluck supper than the quintessential casserole meal. A gift of a casserole is like the hand-knitted wool scarf--warm, comforting and made by a friend--which is the best gesture of all.

HUNTER'S CHICKEN

1 (18 3/4-ounce) can solid-pack tomatoes

1 cup chopped onion

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 bay leaves

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled

2 tablespoons wine vinegar

Salt, pepper

1 (2 1/2- to 3-pound) chicken, cut in 8 pieces

Combine tomatoes with liquid in large oven-proof casserole, breaking tomatoes into bits. Add onion, garlic, bay leaves, cumin, oregano and vinegar. Stir to blend. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Simmer sauce on top of stove 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add chicken pieces, pushing down onto sauce. Cover casserole and bake at 350 degrees about 1 hour. Serve hot or cold. Makes 4 servings.

CHICKEN CACCIATORE

1/4 cup olive oil

1 medium chicken, cut in 8 pieces

1 large onion, chopped

1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced

1/2 cup dry white wine

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 cups fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped or canned, drained

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

Freshly ground pepper

2 bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled

Salt

Grated zest of 1 lemon

3 tablespoons minced parsley

Heat olive oil in large skillet. Cook chicken until lightly browned on all sides. Add onion and mushrooms and saute 1 to 2 minutes. Splash in wine and bring to boil. Reduce heat and add 2 cloves minced garlic, tomato paste, tomatoes, allspice, pepper, bay leaves and thyme. Season to taste with salt and simmer about 5 minutes.

Turn into large oven-proof casserole. Cover and bake at 350 degrees 50 to 60 minutes. Remove bay leaves. Adjust seasonings. Mix together lemon zest, remaining minced garlic and parsley. Scatter over top. Makes 4 servings.

BEEF AND VEGETABLE CASSEROLE

1/3 cup flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 pounds stewing beef plus bones

1/4 cup shortening or vegetable oil

4 cups hot water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

1 large onion, sliced

2 bay leaves

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

12 small carrots, peeled

12 small white onions, trimmed

8 small red potatoes

Mix flour, salt and pepper and roll beef cubes in mixture. Shake off excess flour. Melt shortening over high heat in Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed oven-proof pot with lid. When fat is very hot, add and brown beef on all sides, about 5 or 6 pieces at time. Do not crowd. Remove.

When last batch of meat is richly dark in color, return all to pot and pour in hot water. (Stand back because mixture will spit and sputter.)

Stir and add lemon juice, Worcestershire, sugar, sliced onion, bay leaves and allspice. Cover and bake at 350 degrees 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until meat is tender. Add carrots, small white onions and potatoes and bake another 20 to 25 minutes, or until vegetables can be easily pierced with fork. Makes 4 servings.

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