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Food and Drink

A case for the lonely casserole

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The thing about "the casserole" as a symbol in our Canadian consciousness is that no matter from which angle it's considered, it usually comes up indefinable. Indefinable and beige. Beige, as in inoffensive; beige, as in boring.

Too bad. Casseroles were once a mainstay of Canadian middle-class cookery, and, before that, heroes of continental cuisines.

It may have been the very beigeness of Canadian middle-classness, along with the novelty of processed foods from companies such as Kraft and their persuasive ad campaigns, that milked down casseroles to the insipid point where few in their right mind considered making them.

After decades of our middling collective addiction, casseroles became the anti-dish - anti-taste, anti-company and certainly anti-cool. At the very least, they stubbornly defied the self-conscious, towering constructions chefs fell in love with in the '90s for plating food.

Casseroles, and by this I mean real baked-in-the-oven-for-ages casseroles with rich, bubbly brown crusty tops and slips of burnt-on sauces oozing down the sides, got further sideswiped in the early '70s. Crock-Pots arrived, enabling a type of slow-cooked meal - one that entailed much more liquid and delivered different results - without making someone stay at home to watch over the oven. Lord knows an unwatched oven is a dangerous thing.

So it is that we have turned our backs on an old friend.

At the other end of the domestic spectrum, however, the idea of casserole reached something of an apotheosis, as Margaret Visser declared, in the cassoulets of southern France. Isn't that convincing?

Cassoulets of Castelnaudary were arguably king, but maybe that was because the compiler of Larousse Gastronomique was from Castelnaudary. Regardless, they ruled, with their special saucisson and special white beans - haricots - which are from what is now Central America, ironic given cassoulet is considered quintessentially French. The name "casserole" even came to us via French and Italian from the Spanish root "cazuela," meaning a kind of stew pan.

But here's the latest: I'll bet you a tin of cream of mushroom soup that casseroles are going to make a big comeback any day as the dish for the malaise of these neo-conservative times. As we are stuck in fear and uncertainty, soon we will be stuck again in casseroles.

When has anything been certain, I ask you? But witness nonetheless the comeback of the slow cooker, albeit in fancier forms like Crock-Pot's Designer Series in slick stainless steel with "one-touch" digital controls. The Food Network even featured a casserole recipe.

If you need more reasons to casserole, and yes, it can be a verb, although it should be a transitive one, I, as staunch public defender of the casserole, offer the following:

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