For me in my own food culture of partially English origins, casserole recipes are for main meals made from ingredients arranged in a deep dish and then baked in the oven without stirring.
When I set out to write on casserole dishes as a concept I soon found that it is hard to define what a casserole really is. The word comes originally from the diminutive of the French Provencal, casse, a pan. It has come to have several meanings. It can apply to the receptacle, or the vertical sided dish in which food is baked in the oven which can be carried straight to table for serving. It can apply to the type of food normally cooked in this way, and it can apply to the action, the type of cooking, in which it means ‘to cook slowly in a casserole dish’. There are further complications. To one group of European influenced cultures it means oven baked, for extra tastiness, and to others it is a one dish meal, and can be quite liquid. I think they divide may be along the language lines of Western Europe, the Germanic/Romance divide. Thus English folk and Germans are more on the same page than they are with the French on what a casserole is. Except in Germany its called an Auflauf. There is overlap of course between the ‘one-dish’ and the ‘oven-baked’ casserole recipes, adding to the haziness of the subject.
My research uncovered that there are many other ‘senses’ of casserole in different areas of the world, and many many different words given to these types of dishes. On the one extreme is the English dish defined by the oven baking process, and probably containing leftovers laid down in layers, topped with a lot of starch and cheese, and placed in the oven and not stirred till it is done,
and on the other European extreme is a combination of quite liquid ingredients slow cooked in one pot (German Eintopf) and stirred frequently. They have in common the special richness of flavor brought from slow cooking, and that there is a deep fluid holding cooking pot involved, rather than a spike, as in a spit roast, or sputtering oil and wide open top as in a wok or pancake griddle, and they are not breads, pastries or yeast or flour based although these are also oven baked. To confuse the issue casserole recipes can call for crisp starchy toppings, like mash potato with cheese sprinkled on it, but I think if they have a dough topping they are considered a pie ! What do you think as your read this, form the point of view of your language use ?
Since one cannot define the dish, or limit it. I’ve decided to open up the concept, forget about language and look at the material aspects of food. We will investigate casserole recipes from around the world, meaning recipes for one pot meals, slow cooked, and we'll be searching out the unique regional flavors represented in each of the recipes. You will find that in every region there is a special culture around this type of simple meal, sometimes typifying the national cuisine. There may be a special name for the pot itself, or the ingredients therein, a different kind of heat supply may define the tradition, and make it what it is, such as using an open fire. Like language, there is general, abstract similarity between different places, but ultimately mind boggling global diversity in the details of application.
The only global commonalities here are a sort of practicality. Cooking in one pot is convenient and makes the most of resources, scarce or not, as does slow cooking. Flavor, supply of ingredients, nutritional needs and fuel are all optimal. There is a natural logic to the presence of this genre of food that is hearty, filling, giving the most energy value for one’s money, and getting the most out of the flavor of humble, locally available ingredients. Hence its name in some areas of the world: comfort or soul food. It is also apt that many ingredients of differing quantities would be placed in one pot, dependent on the scarcity of one or the other, but adding up to a full meal. This simple type of recipe often originates with the rural poor, who learn how to make cheap, local ingredients really delicious, and the dishes then become beloved of all people in that society and sometimes become what are called ‘national dishes’. Beyond this there is only diversity, and many kinds of cooking pots, particular to specific regions, which cook the food in special ways, and there are many kinds of heat sources, or stoves, and many many more kinds of ingredients and flavors.
It would be really interesting to explore just the very ancient recipes in this very unspecific category, but that is up to my co-author and recipe creator, Stephan. Casserole recipes are not the whole of cooking, but they cover a huge part of it, and the creative possibilities are extensive and wonderful.
So we will start right here with ourselves, at the tip of Africa, and our local one pot meal traditions. We’ll journey anticlockwise
around the map of the world looking at pots of all different kinds used for preparing ‘one pot’ meals, the means of heating these pots to slow cook the food, and the kind of ingredients that make up these regionally diverse meals. I cannot tell the future, but intend to wind up at the end of the journey at the very southernmost tip of the Americas, at the most southerly inhabited town on earth. Going to the ends of the earth on our search, I hope that by the completion of our first circuit of the world, some cravings, both for travel and for delicious food, will be satisfied, that we'll all be filled and fulfilled and rich with new experience.
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