There’s a time every fall where I get nostalgic for the Midwest and the church casseroles of my youth. When I was first learning to cook I was amazed at how easy these casseroles were, less about skill and more about assembly, helped primarily through the heavy usage of canned cream of mushroom soup. Tuna noodle, green bean, tater tot — there was a short window of time in college where I churned out these heavy baked dishes like there was no tomorrow.
What can I say — my baby ain’t pretty, but she’s got a great personality.
Armed with this craving (but the willpower to not purchase a can of hyper-processed Campbell’s), I was pleasantly surprised to find a box of cream of portabella mushroom soup at Trader Joe’s (seasonal item, if you want to stock up), and bought it for the express purposes of recreating a tweaked version of a childhood favorite. I will admit — this is a total cheater recipe, and something I wouldn’t make often. But sometimes you just get a craving…
The base for the filling is super simple, as most casseroles are. I used the traditional concentrated soup as well as canned chicken to reduce prep (at this point I suspect half my readers are groaning, and the other half are nodding in agreement). I made a basic mirepoix filling from fresh onion, carrot, and celery, adding in fresh green beans, and thickened the sauce slightly with a tablespoon of flour. The crust was a simple sheet of vented puff pastry. Other than the fresh veggies (which are staples at most American supermarkets), this is a solid pantry/freezer dish. If I had been more ambitious, I could’ve even made the cream of mushroom soup by scratch, and if I had been less ambitious (and likely more realistic to tradition), I would’ve used a bag of frozen vegetables and omitted the thyme. In addition, I don’t remember any casseroles ever using puff pastry — preferred toppings include tater tots, fried onions, and cornflakes.
Casseroles are the quintessential Midwestern comfort food. Even living in a family that never cooked these, I ate more than my share at friends’ homes and church suppers. Made out of simple, pantry ingredients, they are easy to pull together and relatively inexpensive, especially since you can stockpile ingredients when they go on sale. Casseroles (or “hot dishes,” as my Minnesotan friends call them) usually consist of a starch, protein, and vegetable mixed together with a canned “cream of” soup and baked. They feed a crowd, and really “stick to your ribs,” totally necessary in the bone-chilling winters. Casseroles are the main dish of choice for potlucks, family dinners, and gifts to help friends through busy life transitions (births, sickness, etc.), the simple, hearty dish of strong Midwestern stock.
If you’re curious as to what a “real” midwestern casseroles is like, let me present to you a whole list of recipes (thanks to Minnesota Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion) that will be sure to … give you the authentic deal. Here’s a typical rambling Garrison Keillor monologue for background noise to get you in the right mood — I tried to find a monologue where he talks about the pipeline of cream of mushroom soup that keeps Minnesotans alive, but unfortunately this one about winter will have to do. Reading those recipes makes me one part ill and one part nostalgic — I’m thinking I might tackle the tuna noodle casserole next…
Pantry Chicken Pot Pie Casserole
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 4-5 stalks of celery, chopped
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 1/2 lb of green beans, trimmed and chopped into 1″ pieces
- One 11 oz container Trader Joe’s cream of portabella mushroom soup
- One 12.5 oz can Trader Joe’s premium chunk canned white chicken (this shreds quite nicely)
- 1/2 teaspoon dried ground thyme
- 1-2 tablespoons flour
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 sheet puff pastry, defrosted
- Heat oven to 350°.
- In a large pot, heat up olive oil over medium high heat. Once oil is hot, saute onion, celery, and carrots until slightly softened.
- Add in green beans, condensed soup, and chicken. Fill the soup container halfway with water and add to the pot as well.
- Once the mixture begins to bubble, turn heat to medium low and add in thyme, salt and pepper to taste, and enough flour to thicken the mixture slightly. Stir continually so that the filling remains smooth.
- Roll out puff pastry to fit a 9×9″ glass baking dish. Cut vent holes in the pastry.
- Once the mixture is slightly thickened, pour into the reserved baking dish. Cover with puff pastry sheet and bake, uncovered, for 30-40 min or until puff pastry is slightly browned.