Creative Casserole Cuisine

By Debra Daniels-Zeller

People have probably been making casseroles since pots were created and various combinations of foods were blended together and heated over the coals of a fire. Although casseroles are not an American creation, they certainly have a long-standing place in our culinary history. These unpretentious one-dish meals bring to mind potluck suppers, social gatherings where friends catch up on local gossip while enjoying savory casseroles and exchanging recipes for those delicious dishes.

The original budget-stretching meal, early casseroles in this country contained a minimum of animal products. My grandmother often made meat- and dairy-free casseroles while raising her children during the Depression when money was scarce. Similar items were my first introduction to the delicious world of these dishes, and they are still among my favorite kinds of casseroles.

The '50s and '60s were more affluent times. Convenience foods entered the picture, and my mother's casseroles usually included some kind of packaged food. Mainstream casseroles featured various meats, and vegetarian casseroles were frequently overloaded with cream sauces, cheese, eggs, and nuts. Although you could usually find a wide variety of casseroles at potlucks or church socials, you could never be certain that meat wasn't lurking beneath the surface of that beautiful green bean casserole. (A good solution today is to have everyone bring their recipes and display them, or label ingredients in their various dishes at potlucks.)

Today, these homey one-dish meals are making a comeback. Ingredients can be blended or layered; they can be impromptu with quick-cooking ingredients or made ahead. If you make one ahead, you can either refrigerate it or freeze it for longer storage (about 3 months). For easy freezing, line your casserole bowl with aluminum foil and when the casserole is frozen, remove it, foil and all, from the container. Peel the foil away and place the casserole in a Ziploc bag for easy storage. Remember to defrost your casserole in the same bowl in which you made it. Defrost it in the refrigerator. (It may take a day to a day and a half to defrost.) Add about 15 minutes to the baking time of both refrigerated and frozen, thawed casseroles. Made ahead, it will be all ready to pop in the oven when you walk in the door after a hectic day. All you need to do is make a salad or braise some seasonal greens, set the table, then sit down and relax while your casserole fills the house with a heavenly aroma. Though you can prepare it in a deep dish, use a shallow baking dish, such as a 9" x 13" baking dish, for quicker heating.

Casserole cooking should be a creative venture.

Just about any combination of grains, beans, pasta, and vegetables put together, covered, and baked can be called a casserole. Use leftovers if you have them and some seasonal vegetables, add some seasonings and a sauce, turn the oven on, and you're ready to go. Pre-cooked ingredients usually bake for 20 to 25 minutes at 350 degrees. As the casserole bakes, steam is created that rises to the lid and falls back, basting the ingredients and creating a succulent dish.

You can follow the recipes in the article exactly, or peruse them for your own vegan casserole inspirations. You may also get ideas from old fund-raising cookbooks put together by churches, women's clubs, or organizations that can be found at book and tag sales around the country. Substitute tempeh or chunks of seitan for meat in the recipes; use vegan versions for soups, such as mushroom soup; and either skip the cheese or use vegan versions.

Casserole Toppings

Casseroles have a much nicer presentation with a topping of one kind or another. You can use your favorite biscuit recipe and add a bit more sauce to steam the biscuits on top of your baked casserole. A nicely browned vegan biscuit crust, dollops of mashed potatoes, or a combination of mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes sprinkled with paprika will taste just right on a casserole that has a savory vegan gravy. Or you can sprinkle toasted chopped nuts, crushed tortilla chips, toasted coconut, some grated vegan cheese, or toasted bread crumbs over the top. For a colorful presentation, sprinkle finely chopped parsley or cilantro over the top just before serving.


Toast nuts or seeds in a skillet for 7 minutes, or bake at 325 degrees for 7-10 minutes. Chop and sprinkle over casserole.


Lay 6 tortillas flat on a baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes or until tortillas are brown and crispy. Crush tortillas and sprinkle over casserole.


This is a very traditional topping that can be used on many kinds of casseroles. Combine dry bread crumbs or tortilla chips with 1 Tablespoon vegan margarine and sprinkle over the casserole. The margarine makes a rich topping. This combination can be sprinkled on the top of your finished casserole and then placed under the broiler for a nicely browned crust.

A Few Tips for Making Quick Casseroles

Today you can get a fairly good variety of items in the deli or the frozen food section of your grocery store. But, it's easy and much more satisfying to create and make your own casseroles from leftover grains, pasta, or beans, and prepare them with your own seasoning ideas. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Try cooking extra beans and grains on the weekend when you have more time.

Try cutting vegetables in very small pieces so they will cook faster.

Always have quick-cooking ingredients on hand, such as canned beans or couscous.

Don't overlook anything for casserole ingredients — drained pineapple, sundried tomatoes, raisins, artichokes, or even cut-up baby corn can make nice additions to various casseroles. Try to imagine the flavors together before adding things. Go for simple rather than elaborate with many ingredients.

Try using one cup or more of a fairly thick liquid (stewed tomatoes, leftover creamy soups, thick vegan soups, or pasta sauce all work well) for a very succulent casserole.

Try sautéing onions and lightly steaming vegetables before assembling the casserole.

Try to add foods with different textures and flavors — chopped apples, sliced olives, sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped celery, reconstituted dried wild mushrooms, and even dried coconut can be added in small amounts.

Try using leftover pasta dishes with sauce, combined with steamed or blanched vegetables, in a casserole dish. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Do assemble your casserole ahead of time and refrigerate it. Be sure to add 15-20 minutes to the cooking time because the ingredients will be cold.


(Serves 4)

This is a good way to use up various vegetables in your refrigerator. I like fresh in-season vegetables best, but you can use thawed, frozen vegetables, such as beans or corn, in this savory pie. Also, if you have leftover mashed potatoes, this makes good use of them. Just skip the first four ingredients. You need about 2 cups of mashed potatoes for this recipe.

  • 2 medium-large russet potatoes, baked
  • 1 small sweet potato or yam, baked
  • ¼ cup soy or rice milk
  • ¼ cup salsa
  • ½ Tablespoon oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 8 to 10 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
  • ¼ teaspoon red chili pepper flakes, or black pepper
  • 1 red or green pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 2 cups sliced mushrooms
  • 1 cup cubed chicken-style seitan, or tempeh cut into ½-inch cubes
  • 1 cup water, divided
  • 1-½ cups seasonal vegetables, cut into small chunks
    (Try winter squash, zucchini, cauliflower, celery, turnips,
    parsnips, carrots, corn, or peas.)
  • 1 Tablespoon arrowroot powder
  • 1 Tablespoon brown miso
  • Sprinkling of paprika

Skin the potatoes and sweet potato, and mash with milk and salsa. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat a 9" or 10" heavy, oven-proof skillet (cast iron works well) over medium heat. Add oil and onions, stir, reduce heat, cover, and cook until onions are limp. Remove lid, add garlic, red chili pepper flakes or black pepper, red or green pepper, mushrooms, and seitan or tempeh. Mix, cover again, and cook for about 5 minutes. (Cook 10 minutes if using tempeh.) Add ¾ cup water and seasonal vegetables and cook for another 10 minutes. Combine remaining ¼ cup water with arrowroot and brown miso, and blend in with the onion-mushroom mixture, stirring and cooking until sauce thickens. Remove pan from heat, and let cool slightly, about 5 minutes. Gently spread the mashed potatoes over the vegetables. Sprinkle with paprika. Bake for 30 minutes or until mixture is bubbly and top is slightly browned.

Total calories per serving: 297 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 48 grams Protein: 14 grams
Sodium: 266 milligrams Fiber: 8 grams

Country Pot Pie Variation:

If you don't have potatoes, make this biscuit crust version of the country pie. As the filling cooks on the stovetop, prepare this crust.

  • ½ cup soy or rice milk
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar or lemon juice
  • 1-½ cups unbleached flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 Tablespoons vegan soy margarine

Add lemon juice or vinegar to soy or rice milk. Combine dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Cut in soy margarine until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Blend in soymilk. Mix until a dough forms. Turn out onto a floured counter or board. Pat or roll to a circle the size of your pan. Gently lift the dough onto the pie. Cut about five 2-inch slices into the top, so steam will be released as it cooks. Sprinkle with paprika and bake as directed above. Crust will be nicely browned and sauce will come bubbling through openings when done.

Total calories per serving: 379 Fat: 13 grams
Carbohydrates: 51 grams Protein: 17 grams
Sodium: 596 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams


(Serves 6)

Set your precooked rice out as you prepare the other ingredients. If you need to cook fresh rice, use 1 cup of brown rice to 1 ¾ cups water or stock. Bring the stock to a boil, add rice, reduce heat, and simmer for 45 minutes or until rice is done. This will make 2 ½ cups of rice. Jalapeño-stuffed olives are available in most grocery stores. If you can't find them, use pimiento-stuffed olives and add ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper to the recipe. If you can't locate green soybeans, substitute lima beans or frozen peas.

  • 2-½ cups cooked brown rice (use short grain or Basmati)
  • 2 red peppers
  • 1 cup vegetarian stock
  • ½ Tablespoon arrowroot powder
  • 3 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1-½ cups carrots, cut into matchsticks
  • 1 cup frozen, defrosted green soybeans
  • ⅓ cup currants or raisins
  • ½ cup sliced, jalapeño-stuffed green olives
  • ½ cup chopped parsley

Set both peppers in a broiler pan and broil until their skins turn black and begin to blister. With long-handled tongs, turn them until all sides are blackened. Close the peppers in a paper bag, or use a saucepan and cover with a lid. Let peppers cool for about 15 minutes before removing stems, peeling, and seeding. Slice peppers into thin strips.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine vegetarian stock and arrowroot powder in a saucepan and mix well. Add garlic, carrots, and green soybeans and bring to a boil. Simmer until carrots and soybeans are cooked and mixture thickens, about 7 minutes. Meanwhile, combine currants or raisins, peppers, olives, and brown rice. Place half the mixture in a casserole dish. Layer with half the soybean and carrot mixture. Repeat layers. Cover and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, garnish with parsley, and serve.

Total calories per serving: 198 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 36 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 235 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams


(Serves 8)

This recipe takes a bit more time, but it can easily be made ahead — up to a few days — and baked when you're ready. It can also be made in stages — one day, cook the garbanzos, and the next, roast the eggplants and make the sauce. To save time, you can use a 22.5-ounce jar of vegan pasta sauce and add ½ cup water, some cooked, sliced mushrooms, and zucchini.

  • 2 large eggplants
  • 4 to 5 cloves garlic, pressed
  • ¾ cup water
  • ¼ cup raw tahini
  • Generous dash of red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup chickpeas (garbanzo beans), soaked overnight,
    simmered in about 4 cups of water until done (about 2 hours),
    and drained, or 2-½ cups cooked chickpeas
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 Tablespoon oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons dried basil
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 15-ounce can whole tomatoes
  • 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • ½ cup water (or use ¼ cup water and ¼ cup Cabernet Sauvignon)
  • 2 cups sliced button mushrooms
  • 1 medium zucchini (about 8 inches), sliced
  • 8 to 10 lasagna noodles
  • 1 cup toasted bread crumbs

Set oven to broil. Prick eggplants with a fork and set on broiler pan under the broiler. Turn eggplants about every 5 minutes so they get evenly roasted. When they are very tender to the touch, remove from oven and place in a saucepan. Cover with lid and wait for them to cool. (This takes about 20 to 25 minutes.) Peel and cut into strips. Use juice from eggplant in the sauce.

While the eggplants cool, combine garlic, water, tahini, pepper flakes, and salt in a food processor or blender. Add garbanzos and purée until smooth. This takes about 10 to 15 minutes. Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add oil, onions, and green peppers. Stir, cover, and reduce heat. Sweat the onions and peppers for about 5 minutes. Onions should be translucent. Add herbs, tomatoes, tomato sauce, water, any liquid from the eggplants, mushrooms, and zucchini. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Ladle ⅓ of the sauce into a 9" x 13" baking dish. Place dry noodles on top, using about 4 noodles or enough to cover the surface. Spread ½ of the garbanzo filling over the noodles. Lay slices of eggplant, using all of the eggplant for this layer. Repeat layers, saving about ⅓ of the sauce for the top. Cover securely with a lid or foil and bake for 1 hour or until noodles are completely cooked. Uncover and sprinkle toasted bread crumbs over the surface. Place under the broiler for about 5 minutes to lightly brown the top.

Total calories per serving: 345 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 58 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 381 milligrams Fiber: 11 grams


(Serves 6)

A fragrant, earthy grain, wild rice blends well with mushrooms. If you are fortunate enough to have a source for wild mushrooms (some natural foods stores sell them in the fall), by all means, try them in this recipe. Chanterelles, Shiitake, Cremini, or Portobello mushrooms are all good in this dish. Imagine™ makes a Creamy Portobello Mush-room Soup that is dairy-free; you can use it or make your own quick stock by cooking about 4 mushrooms, 1 Tablespoon chopped onion, and 1 clove pressed garlic in ½ Tablespoon vegan margarine until vegetables are soft. Blend 1 cup soymilk and ½ Tablespoon arrowroot powder or cornstarch together, then purée the vegetables into the mixture.

  • 1-¼ cups water or vegetarian stock
  • 1 cup wild rice
  • 2 Tablespoons vegan soy margarine
  • 1 large red onion, finely chopped
  • 1-½ cups finely chopped celery
  • 1 chopped carrot (about 1 cup)
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 2 cups sliced button mushrooms
  • ½ teaspoon dried sage
  • ¼ teaspoon dried marjoram
  • ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
  • Salt to taste
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • 2 to 3 cups finely chopped spinach or Swiss chard
  • 1 cup vegan “creamy” mushroom soup
  • ½ cup toasted chopped pecans or toasted bread crumbs

In a medium-size saucepan bring stock or water to a boil. Add wild rice, cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 1 hour or until rice is done. Heat a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add margarine and onions, stir, and cook until onions are soft — about 5 minutes. Add celery, carrots, garlic, mushrooms, sage, marjoram, and thyme. Cover and cook on low until vegetables are soft. Add salt, pepper, and spinach or Swiss chard and cook until slightly wilted. Remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Blend the rice with the other ingredients. Pour the mushroom soup over all, cover, and bake for 25-30 minutes or until sauce is bubbling up. Serve sprinkled with toasted chopped pecans or toasted bread crumbs.

Total calories per serving: 249 Fat: 12 grams
Carbohydrates: 31 grams Protein: 8 grams
Sodium: 254 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams


(Serves 6)

If you have leftover pasta, use that instead of the fusilli in this recipe. All you need is about 4 cups. For variation, you can add some chopped fresh spinach or arugula (about 2 cups) as you blend all the ingredients together right before baking.

  • 2 cups dry fusilli (4 cups cooked)
  • 1 Tablespoon oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped
  • ⅓ cup toasted buckwheat (kasha)
  • 1 cup frozen or fresh, shelled English peas (also called Garden peas or shell peas)
  • ½ cup vegetable stock or water
  • 1 cup firm silken tofu
  • ⅓ cup salsa (use either hot, medium, or mild according to your preference)
  • ⅔ cup water
  • 1 cup toasted bread crumbs
  • 1 Tablespoon vegan soy margarine

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add fusilli and cook according to package directions. Do not overcook. Drain pasta and rinse with cool water. Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add oil and onions, reduce heat, cover, and sweat onions until soft and transparent. Remove cover and continue to stir and cook until onions are lightly browned. Add carrots, buckwheat, and peas. Stir to coat with oil, then add stock or water, cover, and cook for about 10 minutes or until buckwheat is done.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. With a hand blender or blender, combine tofu, salsa, and water, blending until smooth and creamy. When grains are done, toss with pasta and sauce. Press mixture down firmly in casserole dish, cover, and bake for 25 minutes or until casserole is steaming, or refrigerate and bake later. Be sure to add 15 minutes to the cooking time when ingredients are cold. Before the casserole is done, combine bread crumbs and margarine. Remove casserole from the oven, then sprinkle bread crumbs on top. Place the casserole under the broiler for about 5 minutes or until crumbs are browned.

Total calories per serving: 270 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 42 grams Protein: 10 grams
Sodium: 315 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams


(Serves 6)

You can find dried packages of sundried tomatoes in natural foods stores. Cut them into small pieces if they are halved. If you can't find the dried variety, use the kind packed in oil. Use the same amount, rinse the oil off, and cut them into smaller pieces before using. Use fresh-squeezed or prepared orange juice for this recipe.

  • ½ cup orange juice
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ cup dry sundried tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 medium Garnet or Jewel yam, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes
  • ¼ cup unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap)
  • 2 Tablespoons prepared mustard
  • 1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
  • Two 15-ounce cans black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
    (or about 3 cups precooked dried black-eyed peas)
  • 1 cup corn (fresh or frozen, thawed)
  • 1 red onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 cup crushed baked tortilla chips

Combine orange juice, water, and tomatoes in a non-reactive bowl. Let sit for 30 minutes. Steam yams for 12 minutes, or until fork-tender.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine orange juice mixture, molasses, mustard, and jalapeño in a blender and purée until smooth and creamy. Combine black-eyed peas, yams, corn, and red onions. Spread mixture in a 9" x 13" baking dish. Pour sauce over beans, cover, and bake for 25-30 minutes or until casserole is bubbling. Top with crushed tortilla chips.

Total calories per serving: 252 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 53 grams Protein: 10 grams
Sodium: 196 milligrams Fiber: 9 grams


(Serves 4)

My grandmother called this simply Tomatoes and Bread because that's about all her casserole had in it. I like it with tempeh, some onions, garlic, and a few Italian herbs, which really add to the flavor. This recipe is a good way to use up stale bread. Make it a day or so ahead and place it in the refrigerator so the sauce will have plenty of time to soak into the bread.

  • ½ cup orange juice
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ cup dry sundried tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 medium Garnet or Jewel yam, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes
  • ¼ cup unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap)
  • 2 Tablespoons prepared mustard
  • 1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
  • Two 15-ounce cans black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
    (or about 3 cups precooked dried black-eyed peas)
  • 1 cup corn (fresh or frozen, thawed)
  • 1 red onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 cup crushed baked tortilla chips

Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add oil, onions, garlic, and peppers. Stir together and reduce heat. Cover and cook until onions are transparent and limp. Remove lid and crumble tempeh into the pan. Stir and cook tempeh until browned. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl combine bread, tomatoes, sweetener, basil, marjoram, and salt. Blend well. Add skillet mixture and combine. Press mixture into a 2-quart casserole dish and let it sit for at least ½ hour before baking.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Add cheese, if desired. Bake casserole for 35 minutes or until lightly browned on the edges.

(Note: If you prepare this dish ahead and refrigerate it, bake it for 50-60 minutes.)

Total calories per serving: 311 Fat: 12 grams
Carbohydrates: 43 grams Protein: 12 grams
Sodium: 467 milligrams Fiber: 7 grams

Debra Daniels-Zeller is a frequent contributor to the Vegetarian Journal.