Casseroles: Back to the Future

Casseroles: Back to the Future

Retro food is suddenly "au courant," making casseroles, in all their guises, trendy additions to the menu mix.

Casseroles. They're at home on almost any menu — from the diner to the gourmet restaurant — and every ethnic cuisine seems to have a favorite interpretation — Italian lasagna, French cassoulet, Greek moussaka, or American macaroni and cheese.

Still, “the word ‘casserole’ is antiquated,” notes Christopher Koetke, dean of culinary arts at Kendall College in Illinois. “But, promoting food as ‘retro’ is in,” he says, “So why not feature casseroles in that context on onsite menus?”

Koetke makes a good point. Going ‘retro’ might be just the way to tap into recession-induced inclinations for comfort foods from a simpler time. Think homebaked pies, pot roast and mashed potatoes and root beer floats.

The only caveat? Today, such offerings should be updated for more healthful and environmentally friendly food — no artificial additives, natural ingredients, and lower fat recipes, for example.

“By incorporating higher quality ingredients, utilizing product on hand, and merchandising the dish in appetizing ways, operators can capitalize on the nostaligia that casseroles bring to the menu mix,” says Mark Magiera, a chef instructor at Kendall, and a former onsite chef.

“Whether creating a new recipe or considering which classic casserole to put on the menu, you should also think about the overall texture of food presented in this way,” he adds.

“Generally the base of many casseroles is rich and creamy. So first you want to make it as healthful as possible (within reason) and you should combine that with some crunch, offering your customers a dish that has contrast and excitment in both taste and mouthfeel.”

Magiera offers a few garnishing tips for topping off casseroles in a unique way by playing off of regional American cookery:

  • For a New England Boil, top with sliced potatoes, then bake or broil for a crispy top.

  • For a New Orleans Gumbo, top it with a lid of fried onions.

  • For a California Seafood Bake, sprinkle on an ethnic spice blend like a gremolatta (a mix of lemon zest, breadcrumbs and parsley).

Also, look beyond the recipe and consider upgrading the dish that the casserole is served in. “The merchandising trend today is to get out of steam table pans and instead serve in individual crocks or beautiful earthenware bowls,” adds Magiera.

Consider jazzing up the all-American classic macaroni and cheese with gourmet blends of cheese, healthful vegetables or indulgent ingredients (see tips sidebar p. 38). Incorporate quality ingredients and techniques in a classsic sausage noodle bake, or update a hearty Italian favorite with some vegetarian options like the Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Lasagna or Lasagna with Mozzarella and Creamed Zucchini.