Tag Archives: Casserole

Thanksgiving in a Foreign Land

This is Thanksgiving week… American Thanksgiving, I should say.  This is, however, not just any Thanksgiving, but my first Thanksgiving out of the country and the 150th anniversary of when President Lincoln established it as the third national holiday (along with Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday).  The holiday takes on a different feeling when you think of the timing; the end of the Civil War, the government trying to hold the increasingly fragmented nation together.  How do you forge a lasting union for a nation of people with loyalties, cultures and traditions that span the globe?  Part of the answer, apparently, was to give them a common tradition tying together families across the country in thanksgiving.

Two cousins in a crib.  The "pricelessness" of family at Thanksgiving.

Two cousins in a crib. The “pricelessness” of family at Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday of the year.  The focus on food and family has become increasingly important to me, first when I moved across the States for graduate school, then trying to create new homes with Dave as we progressed through our impromptu academic tour of the Midwest, and now with Little Man in Canada.  So here we are, looking for ways to create our own new identities, to create new family traditions, and to create a dual nationality identity for our son.

play time

Thanksgiving, however, is anything but a simple holiday.  The children’s stories of pilgrims and Indians sitting down to a nice turkey dinner are just that… stories.  But the creation of Thanksgiving, the annual retelling of this fictitious meal uniting disparate peoples, is still a powerful tool today.  For a fascinating study of the history (and fiction) of Thanksgiving, please check out Janet Siskind’s The Invention of Thanksgiving (click on the link to download a pdf of the article).  You’ll never think of American Thanksgiving in the same way again… but in a good way.  It’s powerful, and so is the resulting holiday.

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For my personal purposes, not so differently from Lincoln’s, Thanksgiving has long been about creating a sense of home when “home” is not necessarily apparent.  A sense of family when family is far away.  A sense of belonging in a place that is still a bit foreign.

kingdom

When living in upstate New York, this meant celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with Dave.  Until we met I had no idea that Canada had a Thanksgiving; assuming that it was a uniquely American holiday.  It is and it isn’t.

cousin love 2

Thanksgiving in Canada is celebrated on the 2nd Monday of October, not the 4th Thursday of November.  It is a harvest celebration, without any stories of Pilgrims and Indians.  The meal is mostly the same with turkey, stuffing and the sides.  However, Canadians tend to avoid the dodgy green bean casseroles, with most Canadians I know being horrified by the dish.  In Canada, Thanksgiving is a relatively minor holiday and is quickly eclipsed by Halloween.  I didn’t quite understand this until moving to Canada this year.  For all of my adult life, even when moving often, the idea of a Thanksgiving alone or uncelebrated was tragic.

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One Thanksgiving when we were first dating, Dave was not going to be able to join anyone’s family dinner since he needed to stay in town to finish writing his Master’s Thesis.  This seemed an abomination to me that someone would be home, alone, on Thanksgiving, with only the hope of an at best mediocre TV dinner to look forward to.  So even though I was definitely going out of town to be with my adopted New York family for Thanksgiving, I devised a nice, stay at home version for Dave.  All he would have to do was put things in the preheated oven at a certain time, take them out, reheat a couple of things, and he’d have his own pint-sized Thanksgiving meal.  I think I even wrote out the instructions for him, down to the unwrapping of the carton of crescent rolls and how to form/bake them.  After all, this Canadian obviously did not understand the importance of the holiday since he was willing to sacrifice it.  Who knew how far his ignorance of the proper foods went?  In theory, this should have been fantastic, or at least sweet.  In reality, it has lived in our combined memory as well intentioned, but horrific.  I mean absolutely disgusting and barely edible.  He’s lucky that it was partially edible, since even the local pizza places weren’t delivering that evening.

Dave’s Thanksgiving meal was to be an oven-roasted Cornish game hen, mashed potatoes (oy!), gravy, sweet potato praline, balsamic vinegared brussel sprouts (double oy!), canned crescent rolls (hence the instructions) and I think a mini-pumpkin pie for dessert… but that might also have been burned in the oven.  Of all this, the Cornish game hen was good, the crescent rolls were passable, and the sweet potato praline saved the day.  The mashed potatoes, on the other hand, were raw.  The brussel sprouts were disgusting.  The pie, if it ever existed, has not survived in memory.  It would take me a good 8 years to make passable mashed potatoes.  After this (and other experiences) I was forbidden by friends and family alike to attempt mashed potatoes.  In fact, just a week ago I made pork chops with mashed potatoes and gravy, and both Dave and I commented on the fact that I just might have learned how to actually cook them properly.  I have no idea how a person who even then was a pretty good cook could not make mashed potatoes.

And while the brussel sprouts (yes, I can cook these well now too) were so bad that they don’t even deserve discussion here, I will share with you the one glowing beacon of the day; Praline Sweet Potatoes.  These are now the one thing, no matter whose Thanksgiving I am going to, that I always bring with me.  They are almost sweet enough to be a dessert, but have just a hint of a savory edge that pairs excellently with turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce and the rest.

Dave's Mom's gorgeous table setting with fresh persimmon candle holders.

Dave’s Mom’s gorgeous table setting with fresh persimmon candle holders.

The pictures in this post are from my first Canadian Thanksgiving.  They look the part and embody that sense of Thanksgiving that I think will likely be missing from our American Thanksgiving this year.  We’re still fiddling with tradition, and straddling the line between nations.  Say “Happy Thanksgiving” to a Canadian this time of year, and you get some very confused looks since for them Thanksgiving was over a month ago.  There will be new photos of new traditions coming soon.  In the meantime, no matter what we are doing I plan on keeping family close and tradition a bit loose.

I don't have step-by-step pictures here, but the recipe is easy and the results are worth trying for even without a safety net of photo documentation.

I don’t have step-by-step pictures here, but the recipe is easy and the results are worth trying for even without a safety net of photo documentation.

Praline Sweet Potato

2 lbs. whole sweet potatoes (not from a can)

¼ cup milk

1 egg, slightly beaten

1 tsp. salt

Pepper to taste

½ cup brown sugar, packed

¼ cup butter, melted

¼ cup dark corn syrup

1 heaping cup of pecans, chopped

1.  Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.  Pierce the raw sweet potatoes all over with a sharp knife and place them on an aluminum foil lined baking sheet.  Roast the sweet potatoes in the oven until soft and easily pierced with a fork, about 45 minutes to an hour.  In the meantime, butter a 2-3 quart shallow casserole dish and set it aside.  Once the sweet potatoes are cooked through, allow them to cool until they are easy to handle with your hands.  Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

2.  Tear the skins from the sweet potatoes and put the orange flesh into a large mixing bowl.  Mash the sweet potatoes until they are creamy.  Add the milk, egg, salt and pepper and stir to combine.  Spoon the sweet potato mixture into the buttered casserole dish.

3.  In a small bowl combine the brown sugar, butter and corn syrup.  Pour this over the sweet potato casserole and spread it around so that all of the sweet potato is covered.  Sprinkle the pecans evenly over top.

4.  Bake the casserole uncovered for 45 minutes, or until it is set.  The topping will still be slightly soft at this point, but it will harden as the dish cools.  Watch the pecans towards the end of the cooking time.  If they start to brown too much or burn, drape a piece of aluminum foil over top to slow the browning.

Click here for a printable version the Praline Sweet Potatoes recipe.

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Playing in the Mud

It was hot.  So hot that if I left my trowel in the sun for even a few moments you could have fried an egg on the metal blade.  Blazing hot, but to think of it in those terms made you feel even hotter.  I was collecting yet another bag of broken pottery (officially called coarse ware or cook pot ware, affectionately called crap ware) in my first archaeological field season in Turkey.  I wasn’t exactly sure that I knew what I was doing, and I had no idea what to do with the stuff I was digging up, other than to record it properly.  I hadn’t yet learned how to take the material remains and interpret those back into the lives of ancient people.  Somewhere during the collection of that bag of boring, unpainted, undifferentiated pot sherds, I actually stopped to look at one.

At work analyzing pot sherds in Turkey.

At work analyzing pot sherds in Turkey.

It was the same earth-beige color as the rest.  Roughly the same shape as the palm of my hand, and on the outside surface was a perfectly clear finger print preserved in the clay.  The finger print of the woman or man who had actually made the pot whose surviving piece I now held.  This print was not decorative, but was simply a movement recorded in clay; and I was hooked.  For the first time, all the books on ancient history, all the poorly made films about ancient civilizations (Alexander with Colin Farrell… hours of my life I can never get back), all the museum displays, all of it finally was linked back to real people.  There were real people who made real pots that quite often weren’t pretty, but I bet could be used to put together a delicious meal.

One of thousands...

One of thousands…

Those pot sherds became the focus of my life for a good five plus years.  My dissertation was based on thousands of pot sherds, enough sherds to make your eyes cross and fingers ache just at the thought of analyzing them all.  When I was writing up my findings back in Indiana, Dave surprised me with a present of a pottery class.  It was something I’d always wanted to do, but had never made the time.  Now that I was crunching numbers and trying to interpret ancient life from thousands upon thousands of pot sherds, I was finally going to see what went into making a pot.  And I loved it!  There is something magical about pulling the pottery up from the wheel and seeing it transform before you eyes and between your hands… even if it falls.

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Pottery I made in Indiana.

When we moved from Indiana to Iowa, I lost access to that studio and then Little Man came on the scene and I hadn’t been able to get back to pottery until now.  I’d heard that through the city of Nanaimo there was access to a pottery studio where they also taught classes.  So I tracked down a copy of the Nanaimo Parks, Recreation and Culture Activity Guide and found the information on the Bowen Park pottery studio (in the senior center at 500 Bowen Road).  The best part was that they offered multiple days of open drop in time, where as long as you already know what you are doing you can come by for a small fee and use their facilities.  I was hoping that the muscle memory of throwing pottery would come back, even though I hadn’t held clay for nearly three years.  And it did… more or less.

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With my reintroduction to the world of throwing pottery, I wanted to cook dinner in a casserole dish or pot that I’d made myself.  I wanted to use my own pottery again, to feel the accomplishment of creating something useful not just pretty.  I also wanted comfort food, which meant casserole, and the mother of all casseroles in our household is Chicken Taco Casserole.

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Chicken Taco Casserole is not a light meal, and frankly I don’t recommend trying to lighten it.  I’ve tried it with baked tortilla chips, and they just dissolved in an unappetizing mush.  I’ve tried it with reduced fat canned soup (yes, you heard me right, this recipe calls for canned soup.  Embrace the retro ingredient) and that was a mistake; total lack of flavor and an off putting texture.  This is one of those go big or go home casseroles that we don’t make often, but we savor every delicious bite, scraping our plates (and the casserole dish) clean.  And while you certainly don’t have to bake this in a ceramic casserole made by yourself or a local artisan, I have to tell you that it’s really great if you can.  I don’t know why, but it just seems like things taste better when served in your own pottery, pottery made for you, or pottery made by a local artisan.  It’s similar to how things you grow in your own garden taste better than those things you buy in a store.  It’s powerful when you know the hands that made something, not just an extruder or mold press half way across the world.  So if you get a chance, support your local potter.  You’d be amazed at the craft and artistry that goes into what seems like a simple bowl or mug.

My first casserole dish, made in Indiana.

My first casserole dish, made in Indiana.

Chicken Taco Casserole

As you can see, one chip has already been stolen by someone with fast hands while I was reaching for the camera.

This casserole is the definition of family comfort food for me.  It’s a family recipe that we’ve tweaked over the years and my parents make it differently than I do, and my brother has his own spin on it too.  The ingredients below give a nicely spicy version, but in terms of full disclosure, I haven’t been able to make it with any spice since Little Man came along.  We’re hoping to get him there some day, but for now I omit the chili flakes all together (unless I’m feeling risky and just give a sprinkle to the sauteing chicken), and instead of a half can of jalapenos, I use a full can of mild green chilies.  The taste is still great, but I can’t wait for Little Man’s palate to develop to spicy foods…  Mama misses her chilies.

And a quick warning…  The first time my dad and I tried this casserole with the added chips and cheese on top… the topping never made it to the table.  We pulled the delicious casserole out of the oven, called the rest of the family to dinner, and stood there in the kitchen eating the chips and cheese off of the top.  By the time the rest of the family got there we’d smoothed out the top of the casserole and no one was the wiser… until now.

Ingredients

3 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless

Salt and Pepper

½ tsp. chili flakes

2 cans cream of mushroom soup

2 cans cream of chicken soup

½ small can of diced green chilies

½ small can of diced jalapenos

2 cups grated cheddar cheese

1 large bag of good quality tortilla chips

Directions

1.  Preheat the oven to 350º Fahrenheit and prepare your favorite casserole dish by giving it a generous spray of cooking oil.

2.  Heat a large, nonstick skillet over medium high heat and add a little oil.  Sprinkle the chicken breasts with salt, pepper and half the chili flakes.  Put the breasts into the hot pan spice side down.  Then sprinkle the exposed side with salt, pepper and the remaining chili flakes.  Cook until golden, then flip and sear again.  Saute until the chicken is cooked through, about 10-12 minutes total.

These chicken breasts were large, so I only used two rather than the three suggested in the recipe.  Taster's preference.

These chicken breasts were large, so I only used two rather than the three suggested in the recipe. Taster’s preference.

The beauty of browned food...

The beauty of browned food…

3.  In the meantime, in a large mixing bowl combine the soups, the chilies and a good sized cup of grated cheddar.  Mix this all together and set it aside.

The casserole base with the green chilies, but alas no jalapenos.

The casserole base with the green chilies, but alas no jalapenos.

The casserole base with cheddar cheese.

The casserole base with cheddar cheese.

4.  Once the chicken is cooked through, remove it to a plate and shred it into large strips.  Once shredded add the chicken to the rest of the casserole mixture and stir to combine.

The combined mixture... the start of a beautiful thing.

The combined mixture… the start of a beautiful thing.

5.  Now comes the fun part, layering.  Grab a good sized handful of your chips and crush them into the bottom of your casserole.  This should more or less just flatten them out a bit to make a good base.  Then layer in approximately 1/3 of your casserole mixture, and smooth it out.  Top this with another good handful of chips, and repeat the layers until you cap off the casserole with the last of the mixture.  Be sure to reserve a good handful of chips and about 1/2 cup of grated cheddar for the topping later.

Starting the layering with some crushed chips at the bottom of a casserole dish.

Starting the layering with some crushed chips at the bottom of a casserole dish.

The last layer of chips.

The last layer of chips.

The top layer of the casserole mixture caps off the chips, protecting them from burning.

The top layer of the casserole mixture caps off the chips, protecting them from burning.

Ready for the oven.

Ready for the oven.

6.  Put the casserole on a baking sheet (in case of boil overs) and slide the whole thing into your hot oven.  Bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbly and hot.  Pull the casserole out of the oven, top it with your reserved chips and cheese, and return it to the oven to just melt the cheese.  Watch it like a hawk here in case the chips start to burn.  Once the cheese is melted and the chips brown up on the tips, remove the casserole, let it sit for about 10 minutes (if you can hold off the savage hordes long enough) and then enjoy.

Deliciously browned.

Deliciously browned.

Click here for a printable version of the Chicken Taco Casserole recipe.

As you can see, one chip has already been stolen by someone with fast hands while I was reaching for the camera.

As you can see, one chip has already been stolen by someone with fast hands while I was reaching for the camera.