Friday, December 20, 2013

Vegetable-Heavy Potluck Casseroles

I always think of myself as a cook rather than a baker, but in fact my oven gets fired up almost every day, and that's especially true during these cold months when the warmth and aroma of baking feels like an extra special hug.

When we moved into this home over a year ago, I had to make friends with a new-to-me oven that had been put into the kitchen by the previous home-owners. For one thing, this cooking range has an electric range rather than the gas range that I was used to in St. Louis. This made my heart sink a little bit, I'll admit. But I have come to love how energy-efficient this range is- a big pot of water for pasta comes to a boil in mere minutes, and the surface holds heat so well that I can turn off the heat and let food simmer just in the residual heat.

This oven is quite a bit fancier than any I've used and one of the features is the convection baking mode. As it understand it, convection baking utilizes fans inside the oven to circulate the air, cooking food more evenly and efficiently. But the airflow also tends to dry out the food more than a normal (conventional) oven would.


For almost a year, I ignored this feature- not wanting to risk a dish not coming out right. Then I remembered that I've used a convection oven in the Campus Kitchen where I volunteered once upon a time. It roasted vegetables in record time. That's just it- I would try the convection setting for roasting trays of veggies. It is hard to mess that up! It worked like a dream; a large half-sheet of sweet potatoes, say, are tender and browned in about 15-20 minutes as against the usual 40-45.

I am convinced that roasting converts vegetables to candy- I can barely stop eating them right off the baking sheet. We enjoy them as a side dish and in the last 2 weeks, I also use them in three casseroles that were my contributions to various holiday potluck gatherings. These are ideas rather than strict recipes!

Lentil Sweet Potato Pilaf
This was inspired by a surplus of sweet potatoes bought on sale after Thanksgiving and the need to use them up fast. Lentils and sweet potatoes are a wonderful combination and as comforting as you can get.

There are 4 components to this dish:
1. Cook Basmati rice in the rice cooker until it is tender and fluffy.

2. Roast cubes of sweet potato tossed with some olive oil, salt and pepper in a 375F oven until tender and slightly browned.

3. Make a lentil curry: Saute onions, ginger and garlic. Add soaked brown lentils (whole masoor), salt, turmeric, red chili powder, biryani masala/garam masala, tomato (optional) and cook until the lentils are tender. You don't want this curry to be as thin as dal but not too dry either.

4. The extras: fried onions (freshly pan-fried or store-bought), minced cilantro.

In a greased casserole, layer these 4 components, biryani-style. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes at 350F. Serve warm.

The next two recipes use white sauce/ bechamel sauce. To make white sauce:
  1. Heat 2 tbsp. butter in a heavy pan. 
  2. When it foams, add 2 tbsp. all purpose flour and stir it around to a paste.
  3. Let the flour bubble gently getting a little toasty but not too dark.
  4. Whisk in 2 cups hot milk, stir, bring to a boil and simmer for a few minutes until the sauce thickens.
  5. Season with salt and pepper.
  6. Off the heat, stir in 1 to 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
PS: I edited the white sauce on Dec. 21, 2013. I'd forgotten to include the cheese!
Vegetable Gratin
My mother made baked vegetables all the time when we were growing up- it would be the special "continental dish" at her parties and very popular with the family friends.

I made my version by roasting 1 tray of cauliflower florets and pepper slices with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper: Carrot, broccoli, green beans, and corn and peas would be nice additions as well. I scraped the roasted veggies into a baking dish and poured in the white sauce. Then I scattered a topping of breadcrumbs and shredded Parmesan. Broiled the dish until the top was blackened browned and you're done. Note that you have to watch the broiler like a hawk. Being distracted by toddlers leads to what you see in that picture up there. Still delicious, once you pick off the carbonized breadcrumbs.

Cauliflower Mac and Cheese

This is a great way to lighten up mac and cheese a little while also making it tastier, in my opinion. I used caulflower here but one could also use broccoli- the added advantage of using broccoli is that the florets look like little trees and you can call the dish "macaroni and trees" to the delight of your pun-loving friends.

Here, I cooked a box of tri-color rotini (any short pasta will do). Then I tossed it with a tray of roasted cauliflower and the white sauce. Pour it into a baking dish or two, top and broil as above and viola. Kids are all over this dish, by the way.

All three of these potluck dishes were crowd-pleasers and I'm sure to make them again and again, especially now that roasting vegetables is so quick.

I'm usually careful not to over-schedule myself but I've really blown it this week with 1 holiday dinner, 2 potluck parties, 1 cookie exchange/neighborhood party, 1 ballet to attend. Also,1 meeting and 1 presentation at work, 1 vet check-up and 1 pediatrician check-up. Not a moment to lose! We have friends coming over to spend the holidays with us and I can barely contain my excitement.

I'll be back at the end of the month with The List for December 2013. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, friends. 

32 comments:

  1. That's quite a jam packed holiday, Nupur. Hope you enjoy this special time with family and friends!

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    1. Thanks Manasi! Hope your feet are better and that you're enjoying too.

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  2. Much awaited post! Finally! Worth the wait! Fantastic. Love it as always! Happy holidays to you and family. XX.

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    1. Thanks Mona- and wishing you the same :)

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  3. Wow Nupur, you really are VERY busy this holiday season, which means seeing friends & family and lot of yummy food -- my favorite part of the holiday season. So Enjoy yourself!!
    I've never used convection oven and didn't know what it meant until I read your post :-) I LOVE roasted veggies and can munch on them just as is from the baking tray.
    That mac & cheese looks so yumm!! I'm going to try that for my pasta loving sister.

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    1. Thanks Pavani- it has been a whirlwind with food at the center of it all. I hope your sister enjoys the mac and cheese. Butternut squash also works nicely in mac and cheese.

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  4. Have a wonderful holiday Nupur. I am trying out that sweet potato pilaf...I never liked sweet potato too much till I tried recipes you mentioned and now I'm totally loving it ! Your sweet potato hummus was a huge hit...Have a wonderful time

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    1. Glad you're loving sweet potato- one of my all time favorite veggies! Happy holidays to you too.

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  5. Good stuff...all doable. Have a great holiday Nupur. And best wishes for the coming year too.

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  6. Awwww CK :) Thanks for all of your tips on sane entertaining around the holidays, they've been a real inspiration! For the mac and cheese, do you mix any cheese into the bechamel, or is it only on top? (P.S. I wish I could show that recipe to all of the "sneaky parents" who puree a quarter cup of cauliflower into the box of mac and cheese, and then brag that their kids eat vegetables.)

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    1. Bek- after I read your comment, I realized that I forgot to say that I usually add cheese to the white sauce. Fixed it! Thanks for that.

      Yeah, CK, fond memories! I need to find some place here to volunteer.

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  7. These look good Nupur; perfect for holiday potlucks!
    Thanks for sharing.
    -Mukta

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  8. Dear Nupur,

    Such great recipes! I have to confess I have also been steadfastly ignoring the "convection" feature. You have inspired me to try it sometime soon. Enjoy the rest of 2013. (Remember to breathe!) R

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    1. R- I'm glad I took the plunge and started using the convection function because it really saves lots of time (and therefore energy). Love it for roasting veggies and baking cookies and casseroles. Still I won't use it for cakes and bread- might dry those out too much.

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  9. I wish our convection oven would roast vegies quickly - it doesn't but I have lived with one that does (incidentally ours is gas and then good one was electric which just proves that my insistence on gas doesn't have as much sense as I would hope)

    Have a great christmas with your family and friends - hope the oven keeps up the lovely warming winter dishes

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    1. I hope you're enjoying a lovely Christmas too, Johanna!

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  10. Hi Nupur,
    Eager to try this, but first some questions,
    1. what is meaning of to broil? grill without using convection?
    2. in gratin recipe, how did you roasted the vegetables? in oven?
    Happy holidays!
    Sameer

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    1. Sameer- some ovens have a "broil" function, where a heating element gets hot and cooks the surface of the food via radiant heat. It is a great way to get nice browning on a casserole etc. You'll have to look at your oven to see if it can broil. If not, just baking the casserole works too.

      For the gratin, I did roast the veggies in the oven. An alternative is to steam to- but roasting is tastier, I think. Happy holidays and hope you enjoy the recipe!

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  11. Sounds like a fun filled holiday season - enjoy!

    Just wanted to drop by a note that I tried your lentil sweet potato pilaf for one of the Christmas get togethers and it was an absolute hit! My lentils ended up a bit too dry but nothing a good old raita on the side could not fix :) Thanks for the recipe - I just love the savory recipes with sweet potatoes in them!

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    1. Me too- sweet potatoes + something spicy = perfection. I'm editing the recipe- my description of dry lentil curry may have caused your pilaf to be too dry- sorry!

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  12. the lentil pilaf sounds so yummy! I love sweet potatoes and will try it out :) Your holiday season sounds like such fun! For a change we hibernated this holiday season, away from people! We took a road trip with our 3 month old son to san diego and just cozied up in a beach rental. It was a welcome change and a much needed quiet vacation! Also, the baby (and hence I) slept for 7 hours straight for 3 nights in a row for the first time!! That was the highlight of this holiday season for me! lol

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    1. That sounds like perfection! A getaway is just what we need sometimes. Glad you got some well-deserved zzzzs.

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  13. Happy New Year Nupur. Inspiring recipes and posts as always :-) The pilaf looks so yum..never knew sweet potatoes and lentil would work together. I plan to make this for a get together this weekend. However, I'm not sure about the layering..I've never made biryani before..so, can you please let me know the order of laying them?

    Thanks and wishes to all at home :-)
    Meena.

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    1. Hi Meena- Here's the easiest way to do the layering. Divide each component (rice, lentils, sweet potatoes, fried onions+cilantro) into 2- just do this approximately in the same container that they're in. For instance, if your cooked rice is in a bowl, just divide it into two piles approximately right in there. Now grease your casserole dish with butter/ghee. Start with one portion of rice, spread it out in the casserole. Then pile on one portion of lentils, spread them out in a layer over the rice. Continue with sweet potatoes and onions/cilantro. Then do this all over again. Cover with foil and bake.

      One suggestion: Don't make the lentil curry too dry. Other people who've tried the recipe have been saying it becomes too dry. Good luck and please come back and let us know if you enjoy this recipe!

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    2. hello Nupur,
      Thanks for the prompt and quick response. I made the lentils and yes it was very dry. Before arranging the layers, I added more water to the lentils and also added chopped tomatoes and allowed the lentils to boil to get the right consistency. Then, I layered the pilaf as you've suggested and covered with foil and baked. The pilaf came out very good and all my friends liked it and kids enjoyed it too :-)

      My 2 cents - I made the lentils a little spicy and that worked very well when layered with oven roasted sweet potatoes and rice. Since I was feeding Indian crowd who enjoy spicy food, this was good. Also, my sweet potatoes were cooked nicely, but weren't roasted brown. I felt if they were roasted to be a bit more crunchy, the flavor would have enhanced more. Hope this helps :-)

      Thanks for a simple and comforting pilaf recipe :-)
      Meena.

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  14. Nupur, I tried the lentil pulao. Turned out very dry. Should I have covered the casserole with foil as it baked? Any way to rehydrate it and bake again? Suggestions welcome! Thank you

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    1. I think I made a mistake by calling it "dry lentil curry" in the recipe, I meant drier as compared to dal. I'm going to edit the recipe to make that clearer- sorry about that.

      Yes, I always cover casseroles before baking (will add that to the recipe too). To fix the dry pulao, here's what I would do. Spread the pulao in a microwave-safe dish. Sprinkle generously with water (or milk or vegetable stock). I would use about 1/4 cup of liquid per heaped cup of pulao. Microwave until steaming hot. That should make it moist and palatable.

      Other fixes: serve the pulao with a thin dal or raita or kadhi or soup.

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    2. Thank you, you're the best.

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  15. Nupur, a success story to report after my oversight above of leaving the casserole above uncovered (that rehydrated reasonably well in the microwave). I made the cauliflower gratin with rice-flour roux (my friend has gluten allergy and we made it for her 50th b'day party). 1.25 large heads of cauliflower disappeared in the stomachs of 3 adults and 3 children. The kids thought it was like mac-and-cheese (and ate it with ketchup- disgusting!). Us adults thought it was significantly more sophisticated than that. Thank you for this excellent recipe! And it was good to learn to use the convection feature on the oven too.

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    1. That's awesome!! I'm so glad the recipe worked for you.

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