Comforting Casseroles

By Peggy Rynk

Let's say you have no idea what you want to make for dinner. You just know that, although you may love to cook, you do not love it right this minute. A simple casserole can be a welcome answer to this dilemma. Casseroles are easy to put together and require little else to complete the meal — bread and a small salad or bowl of fresh fruit may be all you need.

Casseroles are wonderfully accommodating where ingredients are concerned. Let's say you have “a little of this and a little of that” in the fridge, freezer, or cupboard. By themselves, these ingredients may not seem like much, but combined into a casserole, they may be terrific.

So, let's say you have a cup of cooked beans, a little frozen corn, a carrot or two, half an onion, and maybe a partial package of frozen greens. You're in business! Heat a Tablespoon or two of oil in a skillet. Add the carrots first because they will take longer to cook. Then, stir in the onions and let cook for a few minutes. Next, add the leftover beans and the frozen corn to the skillet along with any other leftover vegetables you're using. (The volume of ingredients you include will vary according to the size of the skillet.) Season as you wish, and spoon into a greased casserole dish or pan. Top with vegan cheese, slivered almonds, bread crumbs, or whatever you have on hand that appeals to you — or with no topping at all, if you prefer.

Many casseroles can be made ahead of time and kept in the fridge or freezer for even greater convenience. If you're not going to bring them to room temperature before baking them, make sure the casserole dishes they're in will go safely from refrigerator or freezer to the oven.

When you're ready to bake, slide the casserole into a 350- to 375-degree oven for 30 minutes or so while you assemble the rest of the meal — bread, raw vegetables, fresh fruit, or whatever you have on hand that appeals. And dinner is made!

Possible Casserole Combinations

  • Sliced leftover (or raw) baking potatoes or any cooked leftover vegetables you have on hand, vegan sour cream, seasonings to taste, and a sprinkling of bread crumbs.
  • Melange of leftover vegetables and chopped onions and/or garlic, topped with whole grain bread cubes tossed with enough melted vegan margarine to lightly coat.
  • Leftover pasta, leftover pasta sauce, and leftover cooked vegetables. If desired, sprinkle with a little parmesan-style vegan cheese.
  • Leftover vegan chili, whole kernel corn (canned, frozen, or leftover), chopped fresh or canned tomatoes, and seasonings of choice.
  • Cooked grits (common in the South) seasoned with garlic or onion powder to taste and enough soymilk so the mixture is not overly thick. Top with shredded vegan cheese.

Casseroles make wonderful desserts, too. Bake at 350 degrees until heated through and, if desired, very lightly browned on top. Here are two possibilities:

  • Combine sliced or diced fresh fruit — such as peaches, nectarines, strawberries, blueberries, apples, or pears — peeled and seeded as necessary. Crumble vegan cookies over the top, if desired.
  • Peeled and cored sliced or diced apples, tossed with lemon juice, vegan sugar, and ground cinnamon to taste. Top with pecan pieces or slivered almonds, if desired.

Oriental Noodle-Vegetable Bake

(Serves 6)

Richly flavored, with a mix of colors and textures, the toasted sesame oil makes this casserole extra special.

  • 1 cup frozen shelled edamame
  • One 8-ounce package thin Chinese noodles
  • Salted, boiling water
  • 5 Tablespoons toasted sesame oil, divided
  • 1 ½ cups peeled, sliced carrots
  • 2 cups bite-sized cauliflower florets
  • 2 cups bite-sized broccoli florets
  • 2 Tablespoons slivered garlic
  • 2 cups fresh spinach leaves, packed
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Non-stick vegetable oil spray to prepare casserole dish
  • ⅓ cup slivered almonds

Cook the edamame according to package directions, either by microwaving or boiling. Set aside.

Cook the noodles in the boiling water according to package directions. Drain and stir in 3 Tablespoons of the sesame oil.

Heat the remaining 2 Tablespoons of oil in a 12" skillet. Add the carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli and sauté until almost tender. Stir in the garlic and continue to sauté another minute or two. Remove from heat. Stir in the spinach and the salt.

Preheat over to 350 degrees. Add the vegetables to the cooked noodles, blending gently and well. Spray a shallow greased 3-quart casserole dish with oil and spoon the mixture into it. Sprinkle the almonds evenly over the top. Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Total calories per serving: 366 Fat: 18 grams
Carbohydrates: 41 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 246 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Broccoli-Cauliflower Bake

(Serves 6)

With its rich, creamy flavors and textures, this is a casserole even die-hard non-vegetarians will love.

  • 4 Tablespoons nonhydrogenated vegan margarine
  • ¼ cup cornstarch
  • 3 cups soymilk
  • 2 teaspoons salt, divided
  • 2 dashes pepper, divided
  • 4 cups bite-sized broccoli florets
  • 4 cups bite-sized cauliflower florets
  • Non-stick vegetable oil spray to prepare casserole dish
  • 2 to 2 ½ cups whole wheat bread torn into ¼- to ⅓-inch pieces
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar-style vegan cheese

Melt the margarine in a 12" skillet. Stir in the cornstarch and let cook 2 minutes. Stirring often with a fork, add soymilk, 1 ½ teaspoons of salt, and one dash pepper and cook until thickened, keeping the mixture smooth.

Add the cauliflower and broccoli, then blend in the remaining salt and pepper. Cover and cook, stirring often, until vegetables are tender.

Spray a 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan with oil and spoon the mixture into it.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a 1 quart mixing bowl, toss together the bread and the cheese. Sprinkle evenly over the cauliflower-broccoli mixture. Bake for 35 minutes or until topping is lightly browned.

Total calories per serving: 255 Fat: 13 grams
Carbohydrates: 29 grams Protein: 9 grams
Sodium: 1,074 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Baked Burrito Casserole with MILD Enchilada Sauce

(Serves 6)

So full-flavored and enjoyable, this dish is worth making often.

  • Non-stick vegetable oil spray to prepare casserole dish
  • One 14-ounce can mild enchilada sauce, divided
  • One 16-ounce can vegan refried beans
  • One 15 ½-ounce can black beans, not drained
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 ½ cups vegan sour cream, divided
  • Six 10-inch whole wheat tortillas
  • One 2 ¼-ounce can sliced black olives, drained
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar-style vegan cheese

Spray a 13" x 9" x 2" baking dish or pan with oil and spread half of the enchilada sauce in it. Set aside.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, blend the beans, salt, chili powder, garlic powder, and ½ cup of the vegan sour cream.

Lay out the tortillas and put an even amount of this mixture in the center of each. Fold the tortilla edges toward the center, overlapping to make a packet.

Place the packets, folded side down, in the pan. Sprinkle the black olives evenly over them. Then, sprinkle on the cheese. Drizzle the remaining enchilada sauce over all. Top evenly with dollops of the remaining sour cream. Bake for 30 minutes.

Total calories per serving: 473 Fat: 17 grams
Carbohydrates: 75 grams Protein: 18 grams
Sodium: 1,555 milligrams Fiber: 14 grams

Creamy Potato-Vegan Cheese Casserole

(Serves 5)

This dish has a rich, hearty flavor.

  • Non-stick vegetable oil spray to prepare casserole dish
  • 1 ½ cups chopped green bell peppers
  • 1 ½ cups chopped sweet onions
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 4 ½ to 5 cups russet potatoes cut into ¼-inch slices (not peeled if skins are good)
  • Additional salt to taste
  • ½ cup vegan sour cream, divided
  • 4 ounces shredded cheddar-style vegan cheese or cheddar-style slices

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Spray an 8" x 8" x 2" casserole dish with oil. Set aside.

Mix together the bell peppers, onions, and the ½ teaspoon salt in a l-quart mixing bowl. Set aside.

Layer a third of the sliced potatoes in the casserole dish, then sprinkle lightly with salt to taste. Distribute half the bell pepper-onion mixture over the potatoes. Over this, add half the sour cream in small dollops.

Layer on another third of the potatoes and sprinkle with a little more salt to taste. Distribute the remaining bell pepper-onion mixture over this layer and top it with small dollops of the remaining vegan sour cream.

Layer over this the remaining third of the potato slices and again sprinkle with a little more salt to taste. Bake, uncovered, for approximately 45 minutes or until potatoes are almost tender.

Remove casserole from oven. Distribute the shredded or sliced vegan cheese evenly over the top and return casserole to oven for approximately 15 minutes longer or until cheese is melted and potatoes are tender.

Total calories per serving: 258 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 40 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 529 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Baked Mixed Bean, Corn, and Vegetable Chili

(Serves 6)

This dish, with its well-balanced flavors, is especially good served with cornbread and a tossed salad.

  • 2 Tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 ½ cups peeled, chopped carrots
  • 6 Tablespoons seeded, finely chopped fresh jalapeño peppers
  • 1 cup chopped yellow onions
  • 1 Tablespoon minced fresh garlic
  • One 12-ounce package frozen vegan ground burgerv
  • 2 cups frozen whole kernel corn
  • One 15.5-ounce can Great Northern beans, not drained
  • One 15.5-ounce can red kidney beans, not drained
  • One 15-ounce can black beans, not drained
  • One 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, not drained
  • One 6-ounce can tomato paste
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground ancho chili powder*
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne
  • Non-stick vegetable oil spray to prepare casserole dish
  • 4 ounces shredded or thinly sliced cheddar-style vegan cheese

Heat the oil in a 4 ½- to 5-quart skillet or pot. Add carrots and sauté 5 minutes or until they begin to soften slightly. Stir in jalapeños, onions, and garlic. Sauté 5 minutes longer.

Add the ground burger and continue to sauté until it begins to brown lightly. Stir in corn and cook 5 minutes.

Add the beans along with the tomatoes and tomato paste. Stir in the salt, chili powders, and cayenne. Simmer for approximately 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Preheat over to 375 degrees. Spray a 4 ½- to 5-quart baking dish or pan with oil and spoon the mixture evenly into the dish. Distribute vegan cheese evenly over the top. Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until cheese melts.

Note: Ancho, the most popular chili pepper for Mexican cooking, is not hot, just richly flavorful. It is available in the ethnic foods aisle of well-stocked supermarkets.

Total calories per serving: 475 Fat: 13 grams
Carbohydrates: 67 grams Protein: 27 grams
Sodium: 1,067 milligrams Fiber: 16 grams

Cinnamon Apple-Sweet Potato Bake

(Serves 6)

This fragrant casserole goes well with vegan sausages.

  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 5 cups peeled, diced sweet potatoes
  • 4 cups peeled, cored, and diced tart apples, such as Granny Smith
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Non-stick vegetable oil spray to prepare casserole dish
  • 1 cup sugar (Use your favorite vegan variety.)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 Tablespoons nonhydrogenated vegan margarine

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix together the orange juice, sweet potatoes, apples, and salt. Spray a shallow 3-quart casserole with oil and spoon mixture into it.

In a small bowl, blend together the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle evenly over the apple mixture. Dot with the margarine. Bake until sweet potatoes are tender, approximately 45 minutes.

Total calories per serving: 359 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 81 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 221 milligrams Fiber: 8 grams

Peggy Rynk is a frequent contributor to Vegetarian Journal.