As a cookbook lover, I've been overwhelmed by the sheer selection in my local branch. However, when the 2009 James Beard Award nominees for cookbooks were announced, I braved the catalog to order Beatrice Ojakangas' latest venture, appropriately called The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever: With More Than 500 Recipes! The tagline contains all that you really need to know about this massive book - it's huge. Utterly teaming with delectable recipes. And really, they all sound good.
Ojakangas is known for her Scandanavian cookery. A native of Duluth, Minnesota, her ancestry is entirely Finnish. Her first writing venture, The Finnish Cookbook, is still in print - a marvel for a cookbook published in 1964. The Best Casserole Cookbook is her 27th published cookbook. In a recent interview with the Toledo Blade, Ojakangas says the publication of this book is ""very timely," offering "economical meals that are simply made with ingredients that you won't spend a fortune to buy, or that you already have on hand. It's comfort food."
The day I received this tome, I sat down and started reading it like a book. Normally, I like cookbooks with full-color pictures for each recipe; I've been spoiled by the gorgeous cookbooks published by Clarkson Potter. The Best Casserole Cookbook lacks the excessive photography of my favorite volumes, but it does have a few lovely inserts with some mouth-watering photographs. Ojakangas divides the book into several categories, starting with the basics. I loved this section, especially seeing that my early casserole attempts centered around cream of mushroom soup that always seems too salty. One Christmas, I made cream of mushroom soup purely for use in the green bean casserole. Ojakangas shares my disdain for the sodium-packed, overly processed stuff, so she explains how to make different sauces that can act as healthier substitutes for Campbell's. In the following chapters, she details appetizers, meats, vegetarian, grains, desserts, and even breads that one can make in a casserole dish. I especially enjoyed the "Casseroles for Two" chapter - as a single person, it's sometimes difficult to justify making a casserole intended for 12 people, but Ojakangas' smaller portion sizes are spot-on.
Of course, I had to try a number of these recipes. My favorite? I made the Broccoli and Chicken Casserole for Two for a friend of mine one weekday night. The recipe was insanely simple, made with sour cream and parmesan instead of a heavy cheese sauce. I assembled it in less than 20 minutes, popped in the fridge, then put it in the oven when I came home from work the next day. My friend had never eaten a casserole before, so he was surprised to find that he liked it so much!
Next week, I'm making a Southwestern Breakfast Casserole with chorizo, queso fresco, and eggs for a work meeting. We have another potluck the following week - I know that Moussaka with Lots of Vegetables will be my contribution. And I'm sure I can find an audience for Spicy Cheese and Green Chile Dip. When I (reluctantly) returned the book to the library, I forced my co-workers to browse... and I saw several people making copies of the pages to try for dinner later. I may have to buy myself a copy of this book; it will look beautiful next to my worn copy of Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything.