mamster's grub shack -

Finally, Something Good from California
by Matthew Amster-Burton

May 1, 2000

Recently it occurred to me that for all practical purposes, Los Angeles has already tumbled into the Pacific. I am old enough to remember the 80s, and this means I remember when New York was considered a shithole and L.A. was, for all the jealous disparagement, considered the epicenter of hip. Wolfgang Puck and California Cuisine were on the rise. Nowadays, of course, New York is rightly known as the place to be and L.A. is about as cool as creamed corn.

So it makes sense, somehow, to combine the term "California" with something equally passe, casserole, and hope that two wrongs make a right. In this case, they do. This recipe for California Casserole came to me from Laurie's grandmother, who lives in Lompoc, California, an hour from Santa Barbara and therefore far enough from L.A. that it still retains a glimmer of personality.

This recipe has been passed on index cards within Laurie's extended family for decades, and has survived thus far because unlike many preparations of the same name, this one is wholesome and delicious. It's similar to a recipe attributed to Craig Claiborne, and thankfully dissimilar to the one found in the new Big Book of Casseroles, which tries to make casseroles au courant again by banishing canned soups and Velveeta, but succeeds only in proving that this wasn't the problem with casseroles in the first place. And the Big Book goes seriously awry when it tries to cram pseudo-ethnic formulas into Pyrex and call those casseroles, too. Is lasagna really a casserole? Chicken enchiladas? Coq au vin? I kept expecting to turn the page and find a recipe for a loaf of bread. It cooks in a pan in the oven, right? The Big Book's California Casserole recipe includes light sour cream.

The only suspiciously traditional casserole ingredient in the following recipe is Minute Rice. Go ahead and use cooked white rice if you want, but it'll make little difference in the finished dish and the advantage of Minute Rice is that you can sneak into the cupboard later and crunch it raw. Sure, like I'm the only one.

Serves 4

2 tbsp olive or peanut oil
1 green pepper, diced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp cayenne or 2 serrano chiles, sliced
28 oz can diced tomatoes, including juice
Two 14.5 oz cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup Minute Rice
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the oil and saute the green pepper, onion, chili powder, and cayenne or chile until onions are translucent, about 6-8 minutes.
  3. Add the tomatoes, beans, and rice, and salt to taste.
  4. Pour into a 9"x13" baking pan. Bake one hour.
  5. Top with cheese and bake another 20 minutes.

Variation: Saute 1/2 pound of chopped chorizo sausage with the onion and pepper.

I'd made California Casserole quite a few times before I realized that it could be taken in a different direction. I was trying a chile relleno-ish recipe from the cookbook A Cowboy in the Kitchen. It called for stuffing roasted poblano chiles with spiced chicken and tomato and baking them. It came out well, but the filling was pretty boring. Then I realized you could stuff the California Casserole mixture into the chiles. It no longer even remotely deserved the name chile rellenos, and this was my recipe now, anyway, so let's give it a silly name like:

Serves 4

Ingredients as above, plus 4 large poblano chiles

  1. Put the poblanos on a cookie sheet and put under the broiler for about six minutes, turning once, until skin is puffy and charred. Place the charred peppers into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to sit for at least ten minutes.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350°. While the peppers are steaming, make the California Casserole recipe up through step 3.
  3. With your hands, skin the peppers. The skin should slide right off; if it doesn't, just do your best and roast the peppers longer next time. Using a sharp knife, cut a slit on one side parallel to the length of each pepper, and carefully reach in and remove the stem and seeds. Unless you're a lot more coordinated than I am, you'll need to reach around and fish out some of the seeds.
  4. Stuff the casserole mixture into the peppers (get as much in there as you can, but you'll probably have some left over). Place them on the cookie sheet and top with the cheese. Bake 20-25 minutes or until cheese starts to brown.

So good you won't mind eating it even after The Big One hits. [HOME]

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