Casserole of oysters takes chill off winter

Casserole takes some of sting from winter's bite

March 05, 2003|By Rob Kasper

AS I WAS trudging home through the snow, a simple thought kept me going: I was having an oyster casserole for supper.

When the biting wind hit my face, I reminded myself that soon I would be standing over a stove, basking in the pleasant aromas of sauteed onions, green peppers and garlic. As a snowbank blocked my path at an intersection, I envisioned the steaming mix of cooked oysters and vegetables that would soon be sitting on my supper plate. In short, I needed a major dose of comfort food as an antidote to the massive discomfort caused by this $#@%! cents winter, and the oyster casserole delivered big-time.

"It is an ideal dish for winter, especially this one," said James Villas, whose new book, Crazy for Casseroles (the Harvard Common Press, 2003, $32.95), a compendium of 275 hot-dish recipes, was the source of my supper. Villas spoke to me by phone from his home on Long Island, N.Y.

"As I am talking to you, I am looking out on my deck at a snowbank that has been there for a week," Villas said, painting a dreary picture that was familiar to many beleaguered Baltimoreans.

To lift his spirits on a dark winter evening, Villas said he was cooking a wild-mushroom casserole. I questioned him about a couple of oyster-casserole recipes in his book before settling on one that surrounds oysters with sauteed vegetables, bread crumbs and pecans, then covers them with cream.

Villas is devoted to resurrecting the casserole, a dish that, he said, in recent years has foolishly been scorned by snobs. "The casserole is the soul of America," he said.

Cooks in every region of the country, he said, have taken a favorite food of their area -- in the mid-Atlantic it is seafood -- mixed it with other local ingredients and cooked it in a pot. While the name of that pot, casserole, comes from the French, the recipes and the choice of ingredients, he said, reflect the cooking styles of bedrock America.

Promoted during the Depression as an economical dish, the American casserole reached a summit in the 1950s, Villas said, when James Beard devoted an entire cookbook to the subject. The strength of these early casseroles, he said, was that they primarily used fresh ingredients -- a pleasing pattern that continued into the 1960s.

In the 1970s, however, the period of what Villas calls "casserole abuse" began in the kitchens of America. Instead of fresh ingredients, so-called convenience foods such as canned meats and vegetables, faux cheeses and potato chips started appearing in casseroles. This practice, Villas said, was a culinary disaster and one Villas is determined to stamp out. In addition to restoring old-fashioned casseroles using fresh ingredients to their rightful status as delicious classics, Villas is also championing dishes that use newer ingredients such wild mushrooms and aged cheeses.

"At almost any grocery store, you can find a good, sharp cheddar that has been aged 90 days," he said. "That did not use to be the case."

Villas left me with both the feeling that better days lie ahead for the hot dish and with an enticing oyster-casserole recipe that motivated me to fight my way home through the snow.

By the time I got home, I was partially frozen. But about an hour later, after feasting on plump oysters swimming in steaming vegetables and crunchy pecans, I felt that while I might not have whipped this miserable winter, at least I had won a round.

Deviled Oysters and Pecans

Serves 4 to 6

1 stick butter

1 small onion, chopped

1 small green bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, chopped

1 teaspoon dry mustard

salt and pepper to taste

1 cup dry bread crumbs

1 quart shucked fresh oysters, liquor reserved

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2-quart casserole and set aside.

In a large, heavy skillet, melt the butter over medium heat, add the onion, bell pepper, garlic and mushrooms and stir for 5 minutes. Add the mustard, season with salt and pepper and stir 2 minutes more. Add the bread crumbs and stir until blended well. Remove from heat.

In a small mixing bowl, combine the oyster liquor, heavy cream and Worcestershire. Stir until well blended and set aside.

Spoon half the crumb mixture over the bottom of the prepared casserole, layer the oysters atop this mixture, sprinkle the pecans evenly over the oysters. Spoon the remaining crumb mixture over the pecans, pour the cream mixture over the top and bake until golden, about 30 minutes.

-- "Crazy for Casseroles" by James Villas

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