Casseroles: Tips and recipe ideas
Ray McVinnie has an enviable collection of casserole dishes and an even larger collection of what to cook in them.
“Casserole” is both the cooking vessel, usually an ovenproof dish with a cover, and the food cooked in one. A casserole (the food) is like a stew cooked slowly in the oven. This method is especially good for secondary, cheaper cuts of meat that need slower cooking to make them meltingly tender. That said good casseroles can also be made of chicken or simply vegetables, foods which don’t need the alchemy of an oven on a lowish temperature and plenty of time to transform tough cuts of meat into tender morsels. Dishes like casseroles are often of peasant origin and in places like France they would have been cooked in the residual heat of the village baker’s oven after the bread came out. The locals would seldom have their own oven so the women would queue at the baker’s with their prepared dishes. The baker would mark their dishes to identify whose was whose.
Clear robust flavour is crucial with any dish. Often the casserole’s vegetables and herbs might be initially slow fried to intensify their flavour, and the meat is browned, to make it look and taste good (sealing in the moisture in meat by initial browning over high heat is a myth).
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has an excellent chapter in his book The River Cottage Meat Book on slow cooking where he outlines what is needed for a great stew or casserole. He says the secrets of success are to cook the dish slowly. This makes sure the connective tissue doesn’t seize and squeeze out the moisture and make the meat dry. It also turns these otherwise indigestible parts of the meat tender and deliciously gelatinous (think lamb shanks).
Browning helps add flavour as does deglazing with wine to lift the caramelised juices off the pan. Vegetables, obviously, are there for flavour and he talks about the holy trinity of onions, celery and carrots and their sweet aromatic contribution to a casserole or stew. Herbs can do the same thing. Cooking meat on the bone and the inclusion of skin also gets the tick from him when it comes not just to flavour but also for that delicious gelatinous texture. Long cooking even in a covered vessel also reduces the liquid, so intensifying the flavour. Fat carries flavour so something fatty, such as a small amount of fatty pork like pancetta, diced belly pork or streaky bacon, are good things to add to other meat for flavour. Once your casserole is cooked, remove from the oven and let stand for 10 minutes to cool a bit and for the meat to absorb the sauce.
With all of this in mind here are a few ideas for casseroles
Make a Kiwi version of an English hot pot by frying plenty of sliced onions in butter until soft. Dust lamb chops with flour and brown in the onion pan after removing the onions. Make a layer of onions, then one of sliced peeled kumara, potatoes and pumpkin, add a bay leaf, and some chopped garlic, a layer of the lamb chops and cover with more onions and vegetables. Season the layers as you go. Add beef stock to barely cover and dot the top with butter. Cover the dish and place in the oven at 150C for 2 hours then uncover to and cook a further 30 minutes to brown the vegetables. Serve with silverbeet which has been boiled, cooled under cold water, squeezed dry, sliced and fried in extra virgin olive oil with chopped garlic and diced preserved lemon peel.
Dust some pieces of cross-cut blade steak in flour and brown in extra virgin olive oil. Remove and then in the same pan, fry diced onion, celery, lots of chunky diced carrots, garlic, finely diced bacon, a big sprig of thyme and a bay leaf in extra virgin olive oil until the onion is soft. Add the steak back to the pan and turn up the heat. Add a big splash of red wine and mix well and let the wine bubble for a minute. Add 4 cm dice of peeled waxy potatoes, a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste and beef stock to just cover. Season, cover and place in a 180C oven for 1½ hours or until the steak is very tender. Put chicken thighs on the bone, side by side, skin side up in a wide casserole dish. Sprinkle in plenty of finely chopped garlic, some dried wild oregano, chopped anchovies, finely diced preserved lemon peel and some pitted black olives. Pour over a couple of cans of chopped tomatoes in juice, season, cover and place in the oven at 200C for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the chicken is well cooked and the sauce thick. Serve with steamed rice and a green vegetable.
For a classic French take on chicken, put those thighs on the bone skin side up in a wide heatproof casserole. Add plenty of sliced shallots which have been fried in butter until soft with some dried tarragon. Pour in some dry white wine, cover and place in the oven at 200C for 45 minutes. Remove from the oven, put the chicken on a warm serving platter. Put the casserole over moderate heat on the stove top, add lemon zest and cream and boil, stirring until the sauce thickens slightly. Taste, season and pour it over the chicken. Serve with steamed green beans and whipped mashed Agria potatoes.
Make meatballs from minced lamb, finely diced fried onion, a big pinch of chilli flakes, ground cinnamon, garlic and a little ground ginger. Brown in extra virgin olive oil, remove and add chopped onion, finely diced carrot, thin sliced celery, sliced dried apricots and toasted cumin seeds. Fry until the onion is soft. Add the meatballs, a tablespoon of honey and diced peeled purple-skinned kumara. Season, just cover with vegetable stock, cover the casserole and place in the oven at 200C for 45 minutes. Serve with couscous and sprinkle with coriander leaves.
Put lamb shanks, a little extra virgin olive oil, chopped onion, plenty of smoked sweet paprika, orange zest, red wine, chopped tomatoes in juice, a couple of cans of drained chickpeas and some currants into a deep casserole. Season, cover and place in a 190C oven for 3 hours or until the lamb is very tender. Serve with steamed Spanish rice.
Dice pork shoulder into 3cm pieces. Brown in vegetable oil with lots of chopped garlic, finely chopped ginger, fennel seeds, a cinnamon stick, a sliced red chilli, a couple of star anise pods and some black peppercorns. Put everything in a casserole and add Japanese soy sauce, Chinese cooking wine or dry sherry, sliced, rehydrated dried Chinese mushrooms and their strained soaking water, and beef or chicken stock. Cover, place in a 190C oven for 1½ hours or until the pork is tender. Serve with steamed bok choy tossed in a little oyster sauce and with steamed long grain rice.
Stuff small squid tubes with a mix of chopped chorizo, lots of fried onions, raw Spanish rice, sweet smoked paprika and chopped garlic. Pin them closed with a tooth pick. Place side by side in a casserole and add lemon zest, a couple of cans of cherry tomatoes in juice and a splash of dry sherry. Cover and place in the oven at 150C for 2 hours or until the squid is tender. Serve sprinkled with chopped parsley and a loaf of crusty bread.
Slow fry chopped onion, carrot, celery, garlic, a bay leaf, a big sprig of thyme in extra virgin olive oil until the onion is soft. Add a big splash of dry white wine and scrape the pan with a wooden spoon. Pour everything into a casserole and add 4cm-diced peeled Agria potatoes and pumpkin, thickly sliced fennel bulb, a drained can of cannellini beans and a big pinch of saffron threads soaked for 10 minutes in a little hot water. Just cover with vegetable stock, season, cover and place in a 200C oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the potatoes are tender. Serve in soup plates with a big dollop of aioli on each portion and toasted sourdough bread drizzled with extra virgin olive oil on the side.