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Casserole Family Night

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(This post was originally published in April 2014.)

Just as a casserole brings many ingredients together, it also brings people together to enjoy each other’s company. When I stay with my middle sister and her husband, I frequently cook for them. One night, what started out with a pantry scanning activity to decide what to make for dinner quickly turned into a dish that they now ask for almost every time I come over.

I walk up to the table to serve the casserole with a big smile on my face.

Here are my secrets:

Pasta:

Take about a pound of brown rice pasta and put it in a pot with half a stick of butter. Once the butter is melted, pour half and half over the pasta, until it is covered. Bring it to a gentle boil then immediately turn down the heat to keep it at a simmer. Overcooking the milk will make the sauce break, so it is important to keep your eye on it.

Spices:

Pick your own poisons to add at the same time you put in the half and half. My favorite blend is garlic powder, cayenne, minced onions, and herbs de Provence. However, this can change depending on which vegetables you pick.

Vegetables: 

Once the half and half is simmering, add whatever chopped vegetables you so desire. My typical choices are spinach and broccoli. Make sure to chop thicker vegetables into smaller pieces.

Sauce:

The sauce happens naturally. By the time the pasta is al dente, you should have a thin sauce that could use a little thickening. This is when you add a bunch of your favorite cheese: in this case, a white cheddar gruyere blend.

As soon as the cheese is melted, this whole mixture can go into a freshly-oiled lasagna pan, and you can cover the top with more cheese. Place into the oven at 375 ° until the cheese on top is lightly browned. Wait about five minutes before serving to make sure the casserole retains its structure.

Aside from the oozing cheese, the sporadic veggies, and the piping hot pasta, the beauty of this casserole is our interaction while we eat it. We place it in the center of the table. I serve each of us a small square. We eat it together and talk. Once we’re all done,  I ask if they want seconds; we always do. We serve the second round together, and by the end of this round, we’re starting to whoop with fullness. But this is the part that makes me smile: when we finish this round, I ask them how they feel and whether or not they’re done. My brother-in-law usually responds, “This round’s dessert!” and we finish the casserole in a third round together. Hearing that dinner was good enough to count as dessert, and that we’re going to act like it’s dessert to be able to stuff more in our bellies is one of the biggest compliments a chef could get!