CRAZY FOR CASSEROLES
If I say to you the name “James Villas”, what comes to mind? Southern cooking? The food and wine editor of TOWN & COUNTRY magazine? Or perhaps you think of James’ mother, Martha Pearl Villas, about whom several of his cookbooks revolved and after whom were aptly named.
“CRAZY FOR CASSEROLES”, by James Villas was published in 2003 by the Harvard Common Press.
In speaking of James Villas, well-known cookbook authors Jane and Michael Stern wrote, “James Villas writes recipes like they are love letters. To hear him rhapsodize about America’s casseroles is to share a soul-stirring cultural perspective; and to cook these good dishes is to create edible pleasure, meal after meal…”
You have to be captivated by a man who writes recipes like they are love letters!
Before some of you make a face and say something like “Ew, ew, I don’t like casseroles”, I have to tell you, casseroles have evolved considerably since the days of your mother’s tuna-noodle-potato chip concoction. To quote James Villas, “…Unfortunately, by the early 1970s, some casseroles had been so abused by the use of canned luncheon meats and vegetables, dried parsley and garlic powder, Velveeta, bouillon cubes, MSG, crushed potato chips, and heaven knows what other ‘convenience’ ingredients that the whole cooking concept gradually plunged into disrepute…”
“Sadly and unfairly left behind in the carnage carried out by zealous food snobs,” says Villas, “was a veritable wealth of honest, intelligent and delectable casseroles….”
Mr. Villas’ philosophy reminded me of the discovery, in my early 20s (after getting married and beginning to cook for my own family), that much of what I thought I disliked about beets, cabbage, and rice wasn’t actually the food itself – it was just the way my mother cooked it. (Mom’s idea, for instance, of cooking cabbage was to put the pot on the stove around 9 a.m. – for 6 O’clock dinner. Need I say more?).
So, set aside any prejudice the word “casserole” conjures up for you, and discover James Villas’ “CRAZY FOR CASSEROLES”.
In the Introduction to “CRAZY FOR CASSEROLES”, Mr. Villas explains that “nothing typifies American cookery more than the sumptuous, highly varied casseroles that have been baking in ovens all over the country for the past century. In fact,” he claims, Casseroles not only define a major style of food on which millions of us were virtually weaned, but also illustrate like no other dishes what authentic regional cooking is all about.”
“Just mention,” he writes, “jambalaya and spoonbread to a Southerner, for instance, or baked beans and Indian pudding to a New Englander, or tamale pie to a Texan, or Dungeness crab and olive bake to a West Coaster, and watch the eyes light up…”
Mr. Villas explains that over the decades, casseroles such as crabmeat Dewey, shrimp de Jonghe, chicken spaghetti, hog pot, country captain, and Sally Lunn have evolved into regional classics. “I dare say,” Mr. Villas says, “there’s no honest soul anywhere who doesn’t swoon over a luscious chicken pot pie, macaroni and cheese, lasagna, corn pudding and apple brown better….”
Mr. Villas believes that casseroles deserve new attention. I have to agree.
“Just 40 or so years ago,” writes Villas, “there wasn’t a cook in this country who didn’t boast favorite casseroles intended to provide a practical, nutritious, and delicious way to feed both a small family and a large group of hungry friends. The ultimate holiday, wedding, or birthday gift was one of dozens of beautiful casserole dishes designed to enhance all sorts of baked components, and who could deny that anything was more mouthwatering (and easy to prepare) than a bubbly layered meat and vegetable casserole or a creamy poultry or seafood one crusted to a golden finish on top?”
Mr. Villas says it was an era without pretentions, when people gathered at the dining room or buffet table simply to share good food and enjoy one another’s company, a time when cooking, far from being the complicated, contrived and overwrought activity it often is today, was still a leisure affair, and when nothing satisfied and impressed more than a carefully prepared, attractive casserole, a fresh salad, a good loaf of bread, and an appropriate beverage.
The irony, writes Villas, “is that before casserole cookery became so popular during the first half of the twentieth century and gradually took on a distinctive American identity all its own, to prepare food en casserole in the European style was deemed the ultimate in culinary sophistication. (The actual origins of the French word ‘casserole; can be traced back to a Renaissance pot or crock called a casse.) French cassoulet and coq au vin, Spanish paella, Italian Lasagne, Moroccan tajine, Green pastitsio, Indian pilau, British hot pot—the names might have sounded exotic in those early days, but being no more than a combination of ingredients baked in and usually served directly from an earthenware, metal, or tempered glass vessel, the one-pot dishes were essentially no different from the simple casseroles that would become such an integral part of American cookery….”
Villas notes that Fannie Farmer only included a single casserole of meat and rice in her pioneering cookbook, “but it was not till the first decade of the twentieth century that such influential authors such as Marion Harland, Olive Hulse, and Marion Neil began to feature recipes for different types of casseroles. During World War I and the Depression, casseroles were promoted as a means to economize; Campbell’s introduction of canned soups not long after as a substitute for elaborate sauces added a whole new dimension to casserole cookery; by 1943, THE JOY OF COOKING included almost two dozen sumptuous casseroles, and so popular were casseroles by the 1950s, that James Beard devoted a whole cookbook to the subject…”
(I have to go a step further, and add that many other well-known cookbook authors of the 1940s and 1950s were also writing about casseroles—Myra Waldo, Florence Brobeck, Marian Tracy and Betty Wason were just a few of the writers who had something to say about this subject. Some of their books, in particular those published during World War II, were especially aimed at teaching American housewives how to stretch a dollar, a bit of meat, and their ration coupons with casserole cookery. Marion Tracy’s “CASSEROLE COOKERY” was first published in 1941 while her “MORE CASSEROLE COOKERY” was published in 1951. Florence Brobeck’s “COOK IT IN A CASSEROLE” was published in 1943. Myra Waldo’s “THE CASSEROLE COOKBOOK” was published in 1963 while Waldo’s “COMPLETE MEALS IN ONE DISH” (a similar theme) was published in 1965).
But along came the 1970s, canned luncheon meats and crushed potato chips and before long, our Pyrex casserole dishes were being relegated to the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard. (Now many of those 50s casserole dishes can be found in antique stores, with price tags that have us doing a double-take).
Mr. Villas explains, since it appears, today, that every effort is finally being made to reclaim much of our culinary heritage (extending to everything from Tex-Mex and soul food to Shaker and Pennsylvania Dutch cookery to traditional Jewish desserts, his goal in “CRAZY FOR CASSEROLES” is not only to restore old-fashioned, regional American casseroles—from appetizers to desserts—to their rightful status but also to demonstrate how our rich bounty of relatively new ingredients can be adapted to produce wondrous casseroles unimaginable in the past.
He has included old favorites such as shrimp Creole, crabmeat Norfolk and turkey divan but has also put an emphasis on casseroles made with fresh cheeses, ethnic sausages, lesser cuts of meat, root vegetables and new varieties of beans and wild mushrooms, fennel and celery root, baby leeks and sugar snap peas, interesting herbs and spices, oats and multigrain breads, and even a few exotic fruits!
However, Villas adds, “to maintain the distinctive character of the American casserole” he has no objection to the use of such traditional components as leftover cooked foods, canned broths, soups, and tomatoes, packaged bread stuffings, certain frozen vegetables, plain dried noodles, pimentos, and supermarket natural aged cheeses. “On the other hand,” he admonishes, “nowhere in this book will you find canned meats and vegetables, frozen chives or dried parsley flakes, processed cheeses, liquid smoke, MSG, bouillon cubes, crushed potato chips, or, heaven forbid, canned fruit cocktail…”
James Villas says he must own at least 20 different casserole dishes—I think it’s quite possible that I have just about as many (I also have a thing for bowls and containers). In any case, dig your favorite casserole dishes out of the recesses of your kitchen cabinet – and read on. You’re about to re-discover the virtues of casserole cooking!
“CRAZY FOR CASSEROLES” provides 275 All-American hot dish classics. Like most cookbooks, it is indexed according to type – consequently, you have a chapter devoted to Appetizer Casserole Dips, Quiches, and Ramekins, followed by Breakfast and Brunch Casseroles, Stratas and Scrambles, then various other categories – including Casseroles for a Crowd, Vegetable Bakes,, Gratins, and Soufflés – and last, but certainly not least, Casserole Cobblers, Crisps, Crunches and Delights.
I especially like the format of this oversized soft-cover cookbook, with its easy-to-read (and follow ) print and the interesting Side Bars. It’s entertaining, also, to discover where and how Mr. Villas obtained some of his treasured casserole recipes.
It’s difficult to single out particular recipes that I would recommend—but since I am especially partial to breakfast and brunch casseroles or stratas, let me mention Herbed Brunch Egg Casserole, Wild Mushroom Brunch Casserole, Country Ham, Spinach, and Mozzarella Strata and Ranchero Green Chile, Cheese and Tomato Casserole. This is just a small sampling of the thirty recipes listed in just this one chapter. On a personal level, I have to say these types of casseroles never went out of favor in my household and when I am having the entire family here for a brunch, it’s a great convenience to be able to make up a couple of breakfast casseroles the day before and know that you’ve only got to pop them into the oven the next day.
Busy homemakers will love the wide assortment of recipes from which to choose – I’m willing to bet that “CRAZY FOR CASSEROLES” will become your kitchen bible – but read the cookbook front-to-back, first, because Mr. Villas provides us with such a wealth of information and detail concerning the recipes chosen for this
book. (of course, as everybody knows, cookbook collectors read cookbooks the way other people read novels – “CRAZY FOR CASSEROLES” won’t disappoint.
James Villas is also the author of the following:
THE TOWN & COUNTRY COOKBOOK
JAMES VILLAS’ COUNTRY COOKING
VILLAS AT TABLE
THE FRENCH COUNTRY KITCHEN
MY MOTHER’S SOUTHERN KITCHEN
STEWS, BOGS, AND BURGOOS
MY MOTHER’S SOUTHERN DESSERTS
MY MOTHER’S SOUTHERN ENTERTAINING
“CRAZY FOR CASSEROLES” from the Harvard Common Press can be obtained from Amazon.com for $15.54, new paperback, or starting at $6.14 from private vendors, also new, as well as starting at one cent and up for pre-owned copies.
Alibris.com has copies for 99c and up and new from $6.34.
Happy Cooking and happy cookbook collecting!
— Sandra Lee Smith