Why the Casserole Deserves a Comeback
Cooking during quarantine is an exercise in stamina. What started as a desire to try a new recipe every night and master a complicated cooking skill has given way to a more primal desire to simply fuel our bodies. Lately, I have found myself forgoing my trendy recipe sites with their sourdough starters and their homemade chili crisp and reaching for my old-school recipe box with its handwritten recipe cards pulled from the kitchens of my mother and grandmothers. It makes me want to cook a casserole.
Casseroles were a staple in my household growing up, as they were for many Americans. My mother cooked dinner for us most nights -- an act I did not appreciate as heroic until I became an adult faced with preparing my own dinner -- and one of her go-to's was a chicken zucchini casserole, made with a can of Campbell’s® Condensed Cream of Chicken Soup. She got the recipe from my grandmother, and it was one of the few things she could cook that would please both me and my younger sister.
While many of us have memories of family casseroles, you might not be cooking as many of them as your parents or grandparents did. The dish soared in popularity in the 1950s and ’60s, when it was pitched to busy mothers -- via recipes printed on Campbell’s® soup cans -- as an efficient way to get dinner on the table. In recent years, as homemade meals have started to more closely resemble what we’d eat in a restaurant, down to the roasted Brussels sprouts and sous vide steak, a casserole could feel downright retro. Yet its appeal to today’s home cook is stronger than ever.
The casserole is convenient by design. With the addition of Campbell’s® soup, it’s a vehicle for binding together whatever meat, vegetables, and starches you have on hand or can easily find at the store. It cooks in a single pan in the oven (giving your poor, overworked dishwasher a break). Its preparation is forgiving -- there is no meat to sear, no rice to under or overcook. It does not ask you to find that fleeting few seconds when the garlic has browned, but not burnt, in the skillet. It calls for a set-it-and-forget-it bake in the oven and easily keeps warm while you scramble to finish the side dish or coax your partner or children to the dinner table. It reheats well for leftovers. It’s comforting in a way we need right now.
In recent years, a casserole could feel downright retro. Yet its appeal to today’s home cook is stronger than ever.
Because the definition of a casserole is loose, it is endlessly riffable for a variety of tastes. Millions of Thanksgiving tables sport green bean casserole, a dish so famous it’s often identified only by its acronym. The foundation of GBC, Campbell’s® Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup, can also form the base of a classic tuna noodle casserole or a breakfast-ready casserole of bacon and hash browns. When you're craving Mexican, you can whip up a chicken tortilla casserole, or keep things light by giving the casserole treatment to tilapia and fresh veggies. You can easily swap soup for broth, too, like in this sausage and rice casserole made with Swanson® Chicken Broth.
Ask someone about their favorite casserole, and the response is likely to trigger a memory. A colleague lovingly recalled her mother’s recipe made with pork chops and cream of mushroom soup, and then declared she would be craving it for the next week. My mother reminds me that the first dinner she ever cooked for my father was a chicken-mushroom casserole. A New York City-bred friend’s exposure to the dish was the kugel she ate on Jewish holidays. My family’s chicken zucchini casserole was one of the first “real” dinners I learned to make in college when I moved into an apartment sophomore year.
A few weeks ago, I pulled that recipe out again to cook the casserole for my fiancé for the first time. The ingredients were easy to find, even in the over-shopped grocery store aisles -- chicken breast, zucchini, carrots, onion, stuffing mix, the cream of chicken soup, and enough sour cream that I considered halving it while cooking. I boiled the chicken, sliced the veggies, then popped the whole mixture in the oven, and just 35 minutes later, my fiancé and I sat down to eat. He took a bite and told me it reminded him of a casserole his mom used to make. Because of course it does.