Cheese and Hamburger Casserole
One of the things I hope to be a common theme around here and in my cooking in general is pushing myself to try new ingredients, new combinations of flavors, and new dishes. Until this past year, my menu consisted of the same few things over and over again; there was very little variation from week to week. Now, it’s very rare that we eat the same thing twice (except leftovers, of course). I have literally hundreds and hundreds of recipes bookmarked from fellow bloggers and an entire bookcase full of cookbooks so there are always new dishes I want to try!
Several weeks ago, in an attempt to utilize my cookbooks more versus relying solely on my saved bookmarks to create our weekly menu, I brought along “Weeknight: 57 essential recipes to eat smart, be fit, live well” from Cooking Light while Ryan and I were on a long car ride. (Yes, most people bring something off of The New York Times Best Seller list, and I bring cookbooks.) As I was flipping through it, browsing the recipes and enjoying the pictures, I gave Ryan a few options for what he would like made that week. As soon as he saw the picture for Cheese and Hamburger Casserole, he had his mind made up.
This recipe definitely pushed me way outside of my comfort zone. It seems basic enough from the title, right? Cheese and ground meat are both things that we eat on a regular basis. Where it started to lose me was the mushrooms, then I saw thyme, and, worst of all, the feta cheese. Thyme I can tolerate in small doses so I wasn’t as worried about that, but I have a serious aversion to mushrooms and crumbly cheeses. I’ve been trying to be more accepting of mushrooms, especially when finely diced and mixed in to things, but that rule really only applied to eating out or when other people cook; I usually omit or avoid them in my own cooking.
Crumbled cheese, feta cheese, on the other hand, I was not feeling good about. I’ve never tasted it before, but ever since Ryan worked as a cheese specialist at a local gourmet grocery store, I’ve been even more opposed to all types of cheese I’m unfamiliar with, especially crumbly ones. I realize most people would have thought the opposite would be true: my boyfriend worked as a cheese specialist so I must have sampled and fallen in love with a variety of cheese I wouldn’t normally have sampled. While this is somewhat true in that I did discover Parrano, Cotswold, and aged Gouda, the problem is that even four years later, I still remember the wretched smells coming off his smock after he had dealt with the various “stinky cheeses”. Mostly the Blue cheeses are what gross me out, but now I relate anything crumbled to a blue cheese.
I had to agree with him though, the picture in the cookbook looked amazing. I decided to put my preconceived notions away and try the recipe. Overall, it was a ton of work. I am not a fan of dirtying so many dishes to make a casserole, especially when the dish is touted as one fit for a “weeknight”. (This is actually the casserole I was working on while also trying to make my Cinco de Mayo dinner.) It just felt like a lot of work, but that could be because I was trying to cook it at the same time as another meal since this one has to be made ahead of time so it can sit overnight. Once assembled, I felt pretty good about it because it looked delicious. So I put it in the fridge, finished studying for my Statistics final, and rushed home afterward to pop it in the oven, anticipating a delicious dinner. It came out looking even better, and I was really excited. Unfortunately, I can only give it a “meh”.
The mushrooms weren’t even noticeable which is probably because I chopped them up instead of leaving them sliced because I didn’t think either of us would eat a huge piece of mushroom like that. In that regard, I am almost totally cured of my fear of mushrooms. I can’t say the same for my feelings about feta cheese. There was a tanginess present that I can only attribute to the feta cheese, and I just didn’t like it. Otherwise, there was nothing particularly yummy about the casserole as it was quite bland. With the amount of cheese sauce there was, I thought it would be pretty cheesy, but aside from the tanginess, we didn’t really taste cheese at all. Considering I spent close to an hour prepping it on Tuesday night, let it sit for 24 hours, and then spent well over an hour letting it bake on Wednesday, not to mention the pile of dirty dishes accumulated, I expected more.
If it had been really easy to put together, I might consider making some modifications to it and trying it again, but I don’t foresee that happening. Some of the reviewers on Cooking Light’s website made modifications such as herbed feta, Italian sausage, and extra tomatoes. I think any of those would make this a better dish, if you’re interested in experimenting with it. What I can say, in defense of the recipe, is that I do really like the idea of having something made ahead of time to put in the oven during the week. I’m not always a huge fan of the CrockPot, and the idea of make-ahead dinners is a nice alternative. Also, this offers a pretty generous serving for a relatively low POINTS value.
This brings me to a question that Ryan asked a while back; he said, “Why do you post about recipes you didn’t like?” I don’t have a really eloquent answer to that question, but what I will say, first and foremost, is that just because I didn’t like a particular dish doesn’t mean you won’t. I also don’t expect to like every recipe I try; part of trying new things is the possibility of not liking them. Over the past ten months I have tried 125 new recipes (at least that’s how many I have documented) and only a handful of them are things I would not want to eat again (though nothing has been termed disgusting). I am pushing myself to try things I haven’t before tasted, and I encourage you to do the same. Succinctly: you win some, you lose some, but that doesn’t mean you should stop trying.
Cheese and Hamburger Casserole
1 pound ground turkey breast
1 cup onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
6 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon ground thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon black pepper
28 ounces diced tomatoes
⅓ cup all-purpose flour
2 ½ cups fat-free skim milk
4 ounces reduced-fat feta cheese, crumbled, approximately 1 cup
3 ounces part-skim mozzarella cheese, shredded, approximately 3/4 cup
4 cups uncooked pasta (the recipe calls for penne, I used campanelle)
Combine first 3 ingredients in a large nonstick skillet; cook over medium-high heat until browned, stirring to crumble.
Add mushrooms; cook 5 minutes or until tender. Add tomato paste and next 5 ingredients (tomato paste through whole tomatoes); stir well. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered, 20 minutes. Set aside.
Place flour in a medium saucepan. Gradually add milk, stirring with a whisk until blended. Place over medium heat; cook 10 minutes or until thick, stirring constantly. Stir in cheeses; cook 3 minutes or until cheeses melt, stirring constantly. Reserve 1/2 cup cheese sauce.
Pour remaining cheese sauce, beef mixture, and pasta into a 13 x 9-inch baking dish, and stir gently. Drizzle reserved cheese sauce over pasta mixture. Cover and refrigerate 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 350.Bake at 350, covered, for 1 hour and 10 minutes or until thoroughly heated and pasta is tender; sprinkle with parsley, if desired.
Tips: The pasta doesn’t have to be cooked beforehand because it absorbs the liquid when refrigerated overnight. If you want to make it the same day, cook the pasta before combining with all the ingredients. For convenience, use precrumbled feta and preshredded mozzarella.
Source: “Weeknight: 57 essential recipes to eat smart, be fit, live well” from Cooking Light, p. 38
8 servings | 6 POINTS