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Casserole creations; A new twist to an old favorite and a meatless make-ahead dish

After a lifetime of ambivalence toward the casserole, I have reconsidered my position.

This holiday season has convinced me that when a surfeit of obligations comes up against a paucity of time, it's not such a bad thing to have a lamb-and-eggplant shepherd's pie in the freezer for relatives or unexpected guests.

To many, the all-American casserole evokes heartwarming comfort-food memories. But that is not my experience. My mother turned her nose up, literally, at the mention of the word; having made nothing but casseroles as a newlywed, she could not stand the thought of them once she "learned how to cook."

" 'Casserole,' " she liked to say, "is the French word for 'glop.' "

When I cooked professionally, my relationship with such ghastly amalgamations became more complicated. I accepted them as a guest but rejected them as a chef.

Of course, when convenient, I just decided to put foods I liked in a separate category. Let's face it: Lasagna is a casserole. The pleasure we derive from it is directly proportional to the amount of cheese it contains.

And so, as a supposed entertaining expert who has been caught off guard more than once in recent weeks (no time to go to the grocery store; friends coming over in an hour; fridge basically empty), I set out to devise some one-dish wonders of my own -- minus the cans of soup and other processed ingredients.

For the basic formula, I broke out the components of most one-dish meals (protein, vegetable, starch) and filled in the blanks. I started with a personal favorite, shepherd's pie, and gave it a Mediterranean tweak, adding eggplant to the ground-lamb-and-tomato base and topping a layer of mashed Yukon Gold and sweet potatoes with feta cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. The dish freezes nicely, cooked or uncooked.

For a meatless Monday dish -- assembled on Sunday -- I highlighted butternut squash, shiitake mushrooms and earthy kale with Asian accents: coconut milk, lemon grass, galangal, green chili peppers, ginger, tamari, sesame seeds and chili paste with garlic. When the casserole bakes, the kale leaves on top crisp up to add a nice crunch.

Along the way in my casserole adventure, I learned these tips:

* If you plan to freeze a casserole straight away, line the dish with aluminum foil before filling it. Once the contents have frozen, you can remove the block from the pan, wrap it well and store it without a dish.

* Defrost frozen casseroles in the refrigerator overnight, or pop them into the oven frozen but double the cooking time.

* To know whether a casserole is hot enough in the middle, insert a knife in the center, then withdraw it and see if it is hot to the touch; or cook the casserole to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

>Shepherd's Pie With Eggplant

For the topping

1 pound (2 large) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

1 pound (1 large) sweet potatoes, cut into 1-inch slices

8 whole cloves garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/3 cup low-sodium chicken broth or heavy cream, or a combination of both


Freshly ground black pepper

For the filling

1/4 cup olive oil

3/4 pound unpeeled eggplant, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes (4 cups)

1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste

8 ounces sliced white or baby bella mushrooms

1 small yellow onion, chopped ( 3/4 cup)

1 pound lean ground lamb

3 medium cloves garlic, chopped

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup tomato sauce

For assembly:

3 ounces ( 1/3 cup) crumbled feta or freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Chopped chives, for garnish

Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Lightly grease a 6-cup casserole or fluted deep-dish pie plate with nonstick cooking oil spray.

For the topping: Combine the potatoes, sweet potatoes and whole garlic cloves in a large pot; cover with salted water. Cook over medium-high heat until the potatoes are fork-tender. Drain and put the potatoes and garlic through a ricer into a large bowl. Add the oil and the broth and/or heavy cream, stirring until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from the heat; cover loosely.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

For the filling: Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large nonstick saute pan over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the eggplant and cook for about 5 to 7 minutes, stirring often, until it is lightly browned and soft. Season with salt and pepper to taste; transfer to a bowl.

Return the pan to medium-high heat; add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Once the oil starts to shimmer, add the mushrooms and onion; cook for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have exuded their juices and have browned. Add the lamb, breaking it up with a spoon but not crumbling it completely. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes, or until no traces of pink remain.

Drain all but a thin coating of fat from the pan (either first removing the lamb mixture and then returning it to the pan or by holding the mixture on one side of the pan as you drain). Add the chopped garlic, thyme, oregano, onion powder, garlic powder, cinnamon, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Stir in the tomato sauce. Cook for 1 minute, then fold in cooked eggplant.

Spoon lamb-eggplant mixture into the bottom of the prepared dish. Spread the mashed potato mixture over the lamb, covering it completely.

For assembly: Top with crumbled feta or grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and bake for 45 minutes, until lightly browned. Garnish with chopped chives and a drizzle of the extra-virgin olive oil.

Serve immediately. 6 servings

Make ahead: The casserole can be assembled and refrigerated a day in advance or frozen for up to three months.

Per serving (using only broth): 520 calories, 21g protein, 42g carbohydrates, 30g fat, 11g saturated fat, 70mg cholesterol, 940mg sodium, 7g dietary fiber, 8g sugar


>Butternut Squash, Kale and Shiitake Casserole

1/2 cup low-fat coconut milk

2 tablespoons Thai green curry paste, such as Thai Kitchen brand

1 teaspoon Chinese chili paste with garlic, such as Lan Chi brand

1 to 1 1/2 -inch piece peeled ginger root, finely grated or pureed (1 tablespoon)

1/4 cup cream of coconut

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce or tamari

2 1/2 pounds peeled, seeded butternut squash, cut into 2-inch pieces

8 ounces large shiitake mushroom caps, cut into quarters

1 bunch (9 ounces) kale, center veins removed, leaves torn into large pieces and rinsed and blotted dry

2 tablespoons white sesame seeds

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking oil spray.

Use a whisk to combine the coconut milk, Thai curry paste, Chinese chili paste, ginger, cream of coconut and soy sauce or tamari in a large mixing bowl. Add the squash pieces, mushrooms and kale; stir to coat evenly.

Transfer the vegetables to the baking dish, making sure there are plenty of kale leaves on top (so they will crisp during baking). Sprinkle the top evenly with sesame seeds. Cover with a layer of parchment paper, then seal tightly with aluminum foil. Bake for 35 minutes, then uncover and bake for 25 minutes, or until the squash is fork-tender and the kale on top is dark brown and crisp.

Serve warm. 8 to 10 servings.

Make ahead: The casserole can be assembled two days in advance, covered and refrigerated. It can be frozen (unbaked) for up to three months.

Per serving (based on 10): 110 calories, 3g protein, 19g carbohydrates, 5g fat, 3g saturated fat, no cholesterol, 230mg sodium, 3g dietary fiber, 3g sugar

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