Not your Meemaw’s casserole

Depression-era comfort food gets an upgrade

By Bill Colvard -

Baked ziti is reinvented with chicken and a lightened-up Alfredo sauce for a new take on an old favorite casserole. Not exactly health food, but if you use a heavy meat sauce in your ziti, this is probably better for you. Don’t worry. No one will know.

Bill Colvard | The News

“We eat with our eyes,” says everyone from scientists in laboratories to the lady next door who puts a little marzipan carrot on each slice of her carrot cake.

And though it’s probably true that we eat with all five senses, we eat with our emotions too. That’s why comfort food is comforting.

And why someone who eats a perfectly reasonable, moderately healthy diet might find themselves occasionally craving some good old tuna noodle casserole, a dish which has nothing to recommend it other than it can be assembled from a pantry barely better stocked than Old Mother Hubbard’s by anyone who knows how to operate a can opener and boil some noodles. And crush potato chips over the top, of course.

There’s something about a dinner with potato chips on top of it that sets the heart aflutter of anyone who was a kid in the 50s or 60s. A time when science and canned goods were supposed to save our mothers from a life of drudgery and messing with fresh produce. Even for a dish like Tuna Noodle Casserole, a poster child of those not-so-good old days, there’s really nothing wrong with it that can’t be fixed by forgetting the can of cream of mushroom soup in favor of a cremini cheese sauce. And then it will feed not just sentimental memories of your lost youth, but your taste buds as well. You will, of course, crush potato chips over the top. Some things one just doesn’t mess with.

Baked Ziti is another old favorite that stands up to some reinvention. Changed up with chicken breast and marinara substituted with a lightened version of Alfredo that foregoes a lot of the butter and cream of the original and gains flavor from chicken stock instead, it’s pretty darn good. Nothing like the original, the only thing that is the same is that it is still ziti and it is still baked. But it could very well be your kid’s tuna noodle.

And yes, you can get Buffalo Chicken into a casserole. The only thing it doesn’t have that its namesake does have is the capacity to leave you with sticky fingers. You’ll have to decide for yourself if that’s a plus or a minus.

And it would be a disservice not to inform you — it being one week before Saint Patrick’s Day — that you can make Reuben sandwiches into a casserole. It’s a lot easier than making eight separate sandwiches and everybody gets a hot helping of corned beef and cabbage, well, cabbage in its sauerkraut form, which is, quite honestly, more flavorful. And you know you probably weren’t going to boil up a bunch of corned beef and cabbage. This is a delicious way to make a nod in the direction of the holiday without subjecting your family to green mashed potatoes.

Tuna Noodle Casserole

Make an effort to find dried porcini mushrooms. They give an earthy depth to the dish that isn’t possible with fresh button mushrooms.

1/2 pound curly egg noodles

1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms

1/2 cup seafood stock or chicken stock, heated to boiling

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, divided

1 small onion, diced

2 celery ribs, diced

3 tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk, warmed

2 tablespoons dry sherry

1/2 tsp. fresh thyme (substitute a pinch dried)

2 ounces whole-milk mozzarella cheese, grated

2 (5-ounce) cans chunk tuna packed in water, drained and broken into chunks

3/4 cup frozen peas, thawed (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 (1.5-ounce) bag potato chips, crushed

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease a 13 x 9-inch baking pan. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook the noodles until they are just beginning to soften to the al dente stage. Drain the noodles, run them under cold water, and return them to the pot. Soak the mushrooms in the boiling-hot stock for 10 minutes, pushing them down into the liquid with the back of a spoon. Drain the mushrooms, reserving the stock. Chop the mushrooms, and set aside. Strain the stock through a sieve lined with a paper coffee filter or paper towel, and set aside. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and celery, and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the vegetables soften. Scrape the vegetables into the pot with the noodles. Return the saucepan to the stove, and melt the remaining butter over medium-low heat. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute, or until the mixture turns slightly beige, is bubbly, and appears to have grown in volume. Increase the heat to medium, and slowly whisk in the warm milk, reserved stock, sherry and thyme. Bring to a boil, whisking frequently. Stir in the mushrooms, reduce the heat to low, and simmer the sauce for 2 minutes, or until thickened. Add the cheese to the sauce by 1/2-cup measures, stirring until the cheese melts before making another addition. Pour the sauce over the noodles, and stir well. Gently fold in the tuna and peas, if using. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and transfer the mixture to the prepared pan. Sprinkle crushed potato chips over the top of the dish. Bake the casserole for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the crumbs on the top are deep brown. Allow to sit for 5 minutes, then serve.

Chicken Alfredo Baked Ziti

Cook the chicken breasts any way you want to, use some left-over ones, or grab a rotisserie chicken, if you’re in a hurry.

1 pound ziti

2 cups shredded, cooked chicken (about 2 small chicken breasts)

1 batch Alfredo sauce (see below)

2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

(optional toppings: additional shredded Parmesan cheese, chopped fresh parsley)

Alfredo sauce ingredients:

2 tbsp. olive oil

2 tbsp. butter

8 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup flour

2 cups chicken broth

2 cups half and half or milk

1 -1/2 cups Parmesan cheese

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. black pepper

Preheat oven to 375°F. Cook the pasta al dente in a large stockpot of well-salted boiling according to package instructions. Drain. Return pasta to the stockpot and add chicken and Alfredo sauce. Gently toss to combine until the pasta is evenly coated.

Pour half of the pasta into a greased baking dish (either an oval baking dish or a 9 x 13-inch baking dish will work). Sprinkle evenly with 1 cup of cheese. Layer the remaining half of the pasta evenly on top. Sprinkle evenly with the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese. Bake for 20-25 minutes until the cheese is melted and just barely starts to turn golden. Remove and serve immediately, sprinkled with additional toppings if desired.

To make the Alfredo sauce:

Heat olive oil and butter in a large sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and saute one minute, stirring occasionally, until fragrant. Sprinkle with flour, and stir to combine. Saute for an additional minute to cook the flour, stirring occasionally. Slowly add chicken broth, whisking to combine until smooth. Whisk in milk, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Let cook for an additional minute until thickened, then stir in Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper until the cheese is melted. Remove from heat and set aside.

Reuben Casserole

Traditionally, a Reuben is made with rye bread, but marbled rye looks really spiffy in this casserole.

1 pound sliced deli corned beef (coarsely chopped)

16 ounces sauerkraut (drained and rinsed)

1 cup Thousand Island salad dressing

2 -1/2 cups shredded Swiss cheese

6 slices Rye bread (cubed)

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Layer corned beef on the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish. Make sure the sauerkraut is drained and patted dry. Sprinkle it on top of the beef. Drizzle the dressing on top of the sauerkraut and sprinkle the Swiss cheese on top. Arrange the diced bread on top of the casserole and lightly spray it with cooking spray so that it toasts up nicely (or you can butter the bread). Bake for 20-25 minutes or until bread is toasted and cheese has melted.

Buffalo Chicken and Potato Casserole

2 lbs. boneless skinless chicken breasts (cut into 1/2-inch cubes)

8 medium potatoes (cut into 1/2-inch cubes (you can leave the skin on or peel it off))

1/3 cup olive oil

1 -1/2 tsp. salt

1 tbsp. fresh ground pepper

1 tbsp. paprika

2 tbsp. garlic powder

6 tbsp. hot sauce


2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

1 cup cooked and crumbled bacon

1 cup sliced green onions


Blue cheese/ranch dressing

Preheat oven to 500°F. In a large bowl, mix together the olive oil, hot sauce, salt, pepper, garlic powder and paprika. Add the potatoes and toss to coat. Place the potatoes in a greased 9×13 baking dish. When scooping the potatoes into the baking dish, leave behind any extra olive oil/hot sauce mix for your chicken. Add the diced chicken to the leftover olive oil/hot sauce mix and stir to coat all the chicken. Allow the chicken to marinate as the potatoes bake. Roast the potatoes for 20-25 minutes, stirring halfway, until cooked through and nice and crispy on the outside. Remove potatoes from the oven and lower the oven temperature to 400°F. Place the raw chicken (yes, raw) on top of the potatoes and cook for 20 minutes or until the chicken is done. In a large bowl, mix all the topping ingredients together. Top the chicken with the topping and bake for 5-10 minutes or until topping is melted and bubbly.

Serve with extra hot sauce and drizzle blue cheese/ranch dressing on top.

Baked ziti is reinvented with chicken and a lightened-up Alfredo sauce for a new take on an old favorite casserole. Not exactly health food, but if you use a heavy meat sauce in your ziti, this is probably better for you. Don’t worry. No one will know. ziti is reinvented with chicken and a lightened-up Alfredo sauce for a new take on an old favorite casserole. Not exactly health food, but if you use a heavy meat sauce in your ziti, this is probably better for you. Don’t worry. No one will know. Bill Colvard | The News
Depression-era comfort food gets an upgrade

By Bill Colvard

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.

Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.

comments powered by Disqus