Due to a variety of travel plans, we had our family Thanksgiving dinner on Tuesday night this year at our apartment in Des Moines. It was just me, Marcia, Katelin and John, and since it was a small gathering (and since we all had a grand full Thanksgiving dinner the Sunday before at John’s mother’s house), I decided to roll out the most magical of holiday dishes again this year: Thanksgiving Casserole!
As much as I do appreciate (especially when somebody else serves it) the traditional conspicuous consumption dinner that takes hours to make, minutes to eat, and then leaves days worth of leftovers behind, when it’s just two, three or four of us together for the holiday, I’ve decided that it’s really not worth the time, effort, and calories. I’ve written here before about the wonders of casseroles (which are known as Hot Dish where Marcia’s from), and (without patting myself on the back too much), I do consider this one to be the end-all and be-all of the idiom.
I embraced Beverly Mills’ and Alicia Ross’ Desperation Dinners rubric in its construction, noting that not everything has to be made completely from scratch to be delicious, and that well-deployed packaged foods can be just fine, so long as they aren’t the sole anchors of a family’s diet all the time. I also, of course, ensured that there were no grease group violations here, by eschewing any water group foods that might be perceived as Thanksgiving staples belonging in such a casserole, e.g. the jiggling log of canned cranberry sauce that sits on the table and serves as comic relief for the dinner, much as fruit cake does at Christmastime. Do not want! No no no!
I mentioned the great success of this year’s Thanksgiving Casserole on a web forum I frequent and was asked for the recipe by one of the few other Americans there. I hadn’t really ever written it down before, so while it’s still fresh in my mind, I record it now for posterity’s sake, and so I don’t have to recreate it the next time I have need for it. Here’s how it goes, for the permanent record:
1. Make the stuffing first: I used one standard bag of cubed Stouffer’s herb stuffing, and prepped it per the directions: melting four tablespoons of butter in a big pot, adding two cups of chicken broth, bringing it all to a boil, then folding in the stuffing cubes and tossing until they are all moist. I then added one bag of Jimmy Dean turkey sausage crumbles to the mix, and set it aside. (The sausage crumbles were a new product this year and worked well; in the past, I have browned and crumbled about 12 ounces of Jimmy Dean bulk sage sausage in a separate skillet and then folded it in).
2. Butter up a deep casserole tray. Ours is a 13″ x 9″ by 2.5″ ceramic one and the quantities described here filled it perfectly. Pour in and press down half of the stuffing mix to cover the bottom of the tray. Next layer: one 16-ounce container of Bob Evans’ traditional mashed potatoes. Heat per instructions, then layer atop the stuffing mix. I then put a little bit of gravy (I used low fat bottled turkey gravy) and a little bit of shredded cheese atop that, to melt into and flavor the potatoes. (Note: the shredded cheese must be orange, and of a variety that can found at a typical gas station convenience store; don’t try to foo-foo up the casserole with fancy pants products, in this or any other step).
3. Next layer: Turkey. I got a pound and a quarter of Boar’s Head hickory smoked honey turkey breast, sliced thin, from the deli. I then diced it into small pieces and spread it evenly atop the mashed potato layer.
4. Next layer: Mac and Cheese. I used a box of standard sized (not the family sized) Velveeta Queso Blanco Shells. Make it per the box instructions, and layer it all smoothly atop the turkey.
5. Final layer: Drain one 15 ounce can of white shoe peg corn and mix it in with the other half of the stuffing mix. Spread this evenly atop the mac and cheese layer. Then use a piece of parchment paper to cover the whole thing and press down to get the casserole dense and of consistent depth, so it will bake firmly and hold its shape when cut. With the parchment paper still in place to absorb moisture, I put the casserole tray cover on top of the whole thing and put it in the fridge to set for a couple of hours before baking.
6. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the parchment paper, and bake the casserole covered for about 45 minutes. Then remove the cover and bake for another 20-30 minutes, until it’s bubbling nicely around the edges and looks browned on top. Sprinkle more shredded cheese atop the casserole and broil it for a couple of minutes to melt/brown the cheese. Remove from oven and let it set/cool for about 5-10 minutes before serving so it firms up even further. Cut into squares and serve, with the remainder of the bottled gravy (warmed) as a side to be poured on top of each square.
Then eat! It is really tasty and hearty, and it seems to create manageable portions in ways that the giant table full of 10 different dishes never can. It fed four of us comfortably at dinner, with two good-sized squares leftover for lunch the next day. We served it with a side of green beans (not the casserole, just regular beans), and then Marcia made her wonderful pumpkin praline pie for desert. The casserole took me about an hour to assemble, plus baking time. Marcia’s pie took about the same amount of time investment. Clean-up for everything took less than 15 minutes. Everybody was happy and sated, rather than bloated and tryptophan-shocked. We still had great dinner conversations, we still were thankful for what we have, we just didn’t have to start a crash diet the next day. Perfect!
Here’s looking forward to the next time I get to trot it out. If you’re inclined to try it yourself, let me know. We can start a club! Or a movement! Or a cult!