Slim Gourmet

Posted: March 05, 1986

Guess what's making a culinary comeback? The casserole. The casserole comeback is related to a growing fascination with the food of the '50s and '60s! (Also known as "The Great Junk Food Era.")

According to my recollection, the high point of that age was represented by ''Tuna-Chip Casserole" . . . canned tunafish, cream of mushroom soup and potato chips, baked until brown. Serve with lots of water.

If it hadn't been for canned cream soup, the '50s probably wouldn't have existed! In that innocent age, men worked at the office and women chauffeured kids to scouts and marching band, secure in the knowledge that a casserole was bubbling in the oven and would be ready when hubby came home. Nobody worried about cholesterol, inflation, liberation or no-fault divorce.

While much of what passed for food and accompanying recipes on the pages of the era's "ladies' magazines" were truly awful, the casserole concept does have make-ahead merit, perhaps even more so today, when most cooks work outside the home.

In the '50s almost any combination of meat, starch and frozen veggy could be glued together by canned cream soup and stuck in the oven. Today we're much more health-conscious and demanding.

BEEF-AND-BARLEY CASSEROLE

3/4 pound fat-trimmed beef round, in 1-inch cubes

1 tablespoon each: prepared mustard, Worcestershire and soy sauce

1 cup each: uncooked barley, sliced mushrooms and carrots

1/2 cup each: sliced onion and celery

2 cups each: mixed vegetable juice, fat-skimmed beef broth (or water)

1 cup dry white (or red) wine

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon thyme (or savory)

4 tablespoons herb-seasoned bread crumbs

Combine beef cubes with mustard, Worcestershire and soy sauce; mix until coated. Arrange meat cubes under broiler and broil until browned, turning to brown evenly.

Layer meat with barley and vegetables in a casserole. Combine liquid ingredients with garlic and thyme; pour over casserole. Top with bread crumbs. Cover and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven 1 hour and 25 minutes, until meat and barley are tender. Uncover and bake an additional 20 minutes. Makes 6 servings, 265 calories each.

CAJUN CHICKEN CASSEROLE

2 cups cooked diced white meat chicken (or turkey)

2 cups canned tomatoes, undrained

1 cup cooked brown rice

1/2 cup each: chopped onion, minced celery, diced red (or green) sweet bell pepper, cubed yellow summer squash

1/4 teaspoon each: dried thyme, red pepper, ground clove, allspice

6 tablespoons Italian-seasoned bread crumbs

Layer ingredients in casserole with bread crumbs on top. Bake uncovered in a preheated 350-degree oven 35 to 40 minutes. Makes 6 servings, 195 calories each.

HAM-AND-NOODLE CASSEROLE

2 cups uncooked egg noodles

2 cups fresh skim milk

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon prepared mustard

Salt, pepper, paprika, nutmeg, to taste

1 1/2 cups diced cooked lean ham

1 cup thinly sliced raw carrots

1 tablespoon each, minced: parsley and onion.

6 tablespoons each: grated Swiss-style diet cheese and seasoned bread crumbs

Cook noodles in boiling unsalted water according to package directions. Meanwhile, combine milk and flour in a saucepan; cook and stir until mixture simmers and thickens slightly. Stir in mustard and seasonings. Drain noodles.

Layer noodles, ham and vegetables in a 1 1/2-quart casserole. Pour milk mixture over these; top with cheese and bread crumbs. Bake uncovered, in a preheated 350-degree oven 30 to 35 minutes. Makes 6 servings, 260 calories each.

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