Friday, October 20, 2006

Taute Cuisine 4: The Casserole Conspiracy

When we put our child into preschool, being good parents, we asked about the quality of the school meals. What we were told is that each day the meal would include a fruit, a vegetable, and some type of main dish, you know, a casserole, that kids eat.

When I asked exactly what the casserole thing was, it was explained that the casserole usually meant a meat, a starch and some kind of soup base. All of this was phrased in such as way as to justify said casserole as something kids will eat.

Now. This is a private preschool, and fairly expensive at that. Kids can start there as young as infants. I know for a fact that my infant, now pre-schooler, never saw anything like a casserole prior to starting at the school. In fact, it took three weeks for her to adapt to said casserole meals and actually eat at noon, instead of going on a Hunger Strike in search of something recognizable on the plate.

And, what about public schools? I mean, how many of us whipped up a batch of corn dogs and tater tots lately? No, be honest, you didn’t make that, you got it out of the freezer. It doesn’t count, but serving it does count against you.

It all kind of begs a “chicken and egg” question. Does the school serve casseroles because that is what kids eat, or do the kids eat casseroles because that is what the school serves?

C’mon, casseroles went out in the 70s. I just did a search for “casserole” on Epicurious.com, a site that tracks over 22,000 recipes from the last 15 years. I got exactly 69 results, and many of them were not actual casseroles. Given that, how many kids are getting a steady supply of Mystery Mash on the home table?

Of course, according to my post on Eat Better, Eat Together month, most kids aren’t getting much of anything on the home table, casserole or not.

Now that TaterTot casserole, Hot Dog tacos, and Ham and Noodle casserole have found their way in front of my child, what’s a food-loving parent to do?

The simplest thing is to hold your ground. Refuse to serve nothing that remotely resembles fast food or Mystery Mush. Your window of influence is closing, serve the good stuff while you can.

And then, there is also The Stealth Casserole approach. This is a tactic that has been used by moms since even before the casserole was invented. I’d even venture a guess that this was HOW the casserole was invented. While producing a casserole yourself does not constitute sleeping with the enemy, it’s definitely flirting, and thus, should only be used in the most desperate of situations. Situations like Broccoli.

It’s a challenging vegetable in all aspects; flavor, color and texture. And yet, extremely good for you. Parents have been smothering it in cheese for years in the hope of passing it off. So, it’s no surprise that one of the classic casseroles of all time is Broccoli Casserole.

The gist of this classic dish involves taking a small amount of the “offending” green stuff and then smothering it in an entire stick of butter, three cups of cheese, eighteen cups of rice and two cans of saturated fat and salt laded condensed mushroom soup. Voila! They’ll never taste the vegetable now!

The problem is, at this point, the dish’s nutritional blight outweighs any good the minor amount of broccoli contributes. The broccoli is more of a garnish floating in saturated fat.

Enter the Stealth Casserole. I took the old classic and revised it, heavily, or rather lightly, to make it a much healthier dish as below:

1 medium onion finely chopped
1 clove garlic minced
2 small heads broccoli, florets only, steamed for 10 minutes, then chopped fine
1 cup brown and wild rice, cooked in 2 cups low salt chicken broth (3 cups total yield)
1 15 oz. can/box of low fat Portobello mushroom soup, organic is optional
1-1/2 cups shredded cheese, Jack and Cheddar work well, but Parmesean is great and would lower the fat content more.
1 tbs. olive oil

Preheat oven to 350F.

Saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil, set aside to cool.
Steam the broccoli, drain and cool, and chop fine.
Cook rice in broth.

When ingredients are cooled, mix all but 1/2 cup of cheese together in a casserole dish. Bake for 20 minutes with foil over the top, remove foil and bake another 15 minutes to melt cheese on top and brown slightly.

Note: Why chop the broccoli fine, it looks better as florets? Good question. Remember this is the STEALTH casserole, so it is important that the flavor of the broccoli blends with the other ingredients and does not present a texture challenge to your little one.

When this first stealth mission launched successfully, I considered attacking another veggie casserole classic: The Green Bean casserole. But my little one likes fresh green beans from the farmers’ market, steamed, no butter, no salt, nothing. She eats them like snacks. Why wage war on a battle already won?

Well, Parents, good luck on your mission. Remember, stealth rhymes with health.

1 comment:

El said...

Well, I certainly hope you have the option of having your kid eat a lunch packed from home. I don't care how expensive the school is, I highly doubt they could prepare a meal as nutritious as that she already eats at home...and "casserole" sounds just wrong. I admire your tautology of casseroles v. kids' preferences, but...

I have been involved in our (private) school's snack program. The budget is tight, but we've figured out how to feed 168 kids locally produced, organic, non-sugared snacks this year thanks mainly to lots of parental involvement. You have to give a damn, or they'll resort to bags of Doritos. And who needs that: not MY 2.75-year-old.