What’s Cooking: In praise of the casserole

Rigatoni is mixed with broccoli and baked in this casserole from “Hot & Cheesy.”
Rigatoni is mixed with broccoli and baked in this casserole from “Hot & Cheesy.” Chicago Tribune

Step away from the sous-vide machine and the microwave. It’s time to embrace the casserole, that oven-baked creation, and give it the respect it deserves.

“There are two histories of casseroles. There’s a medieval history and the modern history. The modern history really begins in America,” says Clifford A. Wright, author of “Bake Until Bubbly” and “Hot & Cheesy.”

Casseroles can be time savers, versatile and very economical. Yet, Wright points out, in all those early 20th-century cookbook recipes taste was never an issue as long as you get the casserole on the table quickly. “Now they’re starting to have a good name because people are starting to pay a lot more attention to food.”

Betty Rosbottom wrote “Sunday Casseroles” (Chronicle Books, $24.95, 176 pages). Among her tips:

▪ Shallower dishes tend to cook more quickly than deeper ones.

▪ Unless there’s a lot of braising liquid, butter or oil baking dishes to prevent food from sticking.

▪ Creamy cheeses that melt easily can be used instead of white or cheese sauces; Gorgonzola and mascarpone are good.

▪ In addition to or in place of breadcrumb toppings, use toasted nuts.

Baked rigatoni with broccoli

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Serves 4

Adapted from “Hot & Cheesy” by Clifford A. Wright (Wiley, $22.99, 416 pages)


8 ounces rigatoni

1 1/4 pounds broccoli, stems and florets separated

3 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more for greasing casserole

3 tablespoons flour

2 cups hot whole milk

3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 teaspoon salt, about

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

8 ounces mozzarella, diced

1/4 cup dried breadcrumbs

Olive oil


Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Heat a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add rigatoni; cook, 6 minutes. Cut the broccoli stems into 1-inch pieces. Add stems to the pot with the pasta; cook, 2 minutes. Add florets; cook about 5 minutes longer. (Never cook broccoli longer than 7 minutes.) Drain pasta and broccoli; transfer to a bowl.

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour; cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat; pour in milk slowly, whisking. Return to heat; add Parmesan. Cook until thicker, about 10 minutes. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, pepper and cayenne. Taste for seasoning.

Add the mozzarella and half the sauce to the rigatoni and broccoli; toss. Pour into a buttered 10-inch casserole dish; spread evenly. Spoon remaining sauce on top. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Drizzle with a little olive oil. Bake until golden and crispy on top, about 20 minutes.

Per serving: 695 calories, 31 g fat (18 g sat.), 79 mg chol., 66 g carb., 36 g protein, 936 mg sodium, 5 g fiber

Rustic polenta casserole with sausage

Prep time: 25 minutes, plus 30 minutes cool time

Cook time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Serves 6 to 8

Adapted from “The Make-Ahead Cook” by the editors at America’s Test Kitchen ($26.95, 336 pages). Can be made up to 24 hours ahead.


5 cups water

1 1/3 cups whole milk

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste

1 cup coarse ground polenta

2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (1 cup)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 1/2pounds sweet Italian sausage, casings removed

3garlic cloves, minced

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

One 28-ounce can diced tomatoes

8 ounces baby spinach

4 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded (1 cup)


Heat water and milk to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat; stir in 1 teaspoon salt. Very slowly pour polenta into boiling liquid while stirring constantly in a circular motion with a wooden spoon. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer; partially cover and cook, stirring often and making sure to scrape bottom and sides of pot clean. Cook until polenta no longer has a raw cornmeal taste, all liquid has been absorbed and mixture has a smooth uniform consistency but is very loose, about 15 minutes.

Remove polenta from heat. Stir in Parmesan and butter; season with salt and pepper. Pour polenta into a 13-by-9-inch baking dish; cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes.

While polenta cools, heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion and 1/2 teaspoon salt; cook until onion is softened, about 5 minutes. Add sausage. Cook, breaking up with a wooden spoon into large chunks, until meat is lightly browned, about 10 minutes.

Stir in garlic, pepper flakes and tomatoes; cook about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in spinach, 1 handful at a time, until wilted. Season with salt and pepper. Cool to room temperature. Spread cooled sausage over cooled polenta. If not baking right away, wrap dish tightly with plastic wrap; refrigerate up to 24 hours.

To finish, unwrap dish and cover tightly with greased aluminum foil. Bake in a 400-degree oven until hot throughout and bubbling at edges, about 30 minutes. Remove foil; sprinkle casserole with mozzarella. Bake uncovered until cheese melts, 10-15 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.

Per serving (based on 8): 445 calories, 24 g fat (11 g sat.), 54 mg chol. 36 g carb. 21 g protein, 1,438 mg sodium, 5 g fiber

Spinach and rice casserole

Serves 4

A box of frozen chopped spinach opens up a world of culinary possibilities – including this casserole of modest size. A bag of cooked brown rice in the freezer or a box of Minute Brand brown rice is great to have on hand as well. Feel free to bulk up the dish with crumbled, cooked sausage or cooked, shredded chicken.

Transfer the package of spinach from the freezer to a plate in the refrigerator before you go to work in the morning; this will speed up preparation when you get home.

Make ahead: The unbaked casserole can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and aluminum foil, then refrigerated for 1 day or frozen for up to 3 months.


1 large egg

10 ounces frozen spinach, defrosted, then squeezed dry

3 scallions, white and light green parts, chopped

1 cup cooked brown rice (see note above)

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for optional sprinkling

2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese

1 cup low-fat milk

1 small chicken bouillon cube (may substitute a vegetable bouillon cube)

3 tablespoons unsalted or salted butter, melted

2 tablespoons flour


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use cooking spray to grease an 8-by-8-inch baking dish or a casserole with a 4-cup capacity. Lightly beat the egg in a mixing bowl, then add the spinach, scallions, rice and cheeses, stirring to incorporate. Transfer to the baking dish. Heat the milk in small saucepan over medium heat. Break up the bouillon cube, then stir in until dissolved. Remove from the heat.

Whisk together the melted butter and flour in a cup, then whisk that mixture into the warm, milk-bouillon mixture to create a quickly thickened sauce. Pour evenly over the contents of the baking dish. If desired, sprinkle a little Parmigiano-Reggiano over the surface.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the top is golden brown in spots. Serve warm.

Per serving (using unsalted butter): 260 calories; 15 g fat (9 sat.); 90 mg chol.; 440 mg sodium; 22 g carb.; 3 g fiber; 1 g sugar; 12 g protein