We love to categorize people. We speak of the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers, and various Generations X,Y,Z. I think we are missing a good group noun that describes people like me born between 1915 and 1965. We are the Casserole Kids.
Of course, casseroles were being cooked long before Europe erupted in the “War to End All Wars.” In fact, once pottery cooking vessels were invented thousands of years ago, cooks were able to bake casseroles slowly in the ashes of a fire. You might think of them as vegetable meat stews, but they are the ancestors of the casserole.
The modern casserole, however, became popular when food shortages and economic hardships caused by wars and depressions prompted women to begin stretching expensive ingredients by mixing them with leftovers and cheaper alternatives. Thus was born the tuna noodle casserole, the hamburger macaroni casserole, and the leftover chicken rice casserole, to mention only three of hundreds.
We Casserole Kids grew up eating “one-dish meals” baked in the oven. A few still appear on lists of Comfort Foods, and a few are favorites of mine. At least once a year on a cold night I lust for a tuna noodle casserole like my mother used to make with canned tuna, genuine cream of mushroom soup and frozen green peas. I confess to a weakness for macaroni and cheese (any kind) and I absolutely love green bean casserole, and not just for the holidays. I am not alone in having good memories of these dishes.
For hundreds of years from the Middle Ages to the early Nineteenth Century, casseroles were made with crusts of pastry or grains such as rice. With its crust of corn bread, you might think of this recipe as an authentic casserole made with American ingredients. At least the corn, corn meal and jalapeño peppers are all native to America.
Considering the cost of ground beef today, you might want to substitute chopped up leftover roast beef, but even if you don’t, you can stretch a pound of ground beef into a complete meal with a Tex-Mex flavor for a whole family.
An added advantage is that you can assemble this casserole ahead of time and pop it into the oven an hour before dinner while you are relaxing. And who knows, this might become one of your family’s comfort foods.
1 lb. ground beef
1 can whole kernel corn
3 jalapeño peppers
1 medium onion (about 3 inch diameter)
1/2 lb. Cheddar cheese
3/4 cup corn meal
1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. salt plus a dash for seasoning the meat
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
Dash of black pepper
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Brown the beef seasoned with a dash of salt and freshly ground black pepper, then drain and set it aside on a plate. While the meat is browning, drain the corn.
Wash, remove the stems and quarter the jalapeño peppers. Discard the white membranes and seeds and chop the peppers medium fine. Clean and chop the onion into a quarter-inch dice and grate the cheese. Set the peppers, onion and cheese aside in separate small bowls.
Preheat the oven to 425º.
In a large mixing bowl, stir the cornmeal, flour, baking soda and salt together until well mixed. In a small bowl, beat the eggs until lemon colored and whisk in the milk. Add the eggs and milk to the dry ingredients and stir until blended. Add the oil and stir well. Then add the drained corn and peppers.
Grease a nine by nine-inch baking dish or pan. Spread half of the cornmeal mixture on the bottom of the baking dish. Next spread the browned ground beef, cover it with the uncooked onion and top it with half the cheese. Finally, spread the remaining cornmeal mixture on top.
Bake at 425º until brown or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove the casserole from the oven and immediately top it with the remaining cheese. Let the casserole cool a few minutes before serving.
NOTE: You can put the casserole back in the oven for a minute or two after topping it with the cheese if you like.