This week, it finally feels like fall. Kids are back in school, the highs are in the low 70s, and I can finally wear pants and not melt into a puddle. I can also turn on my oven for the first time in quite awhile without feeling like I’m going to burn my apartment to a crisp.
It’s a good time for this month’s cooking project – casseroles, which my friend Rebecca requested back in May. Casseroles are also a classic American comfort food and, given that we’re still in the midst of an economic crisis (or, even worse, a jobless recovery), I think that comfort food will still be very much in vogue this fall.
I was a little wary of this casserole project. Casseroles are tricky because if I make one, it has to be good enough to take for lunch for the rest of the week. And since I’ll be eating it every day, it can’t be the cheese and bacon-filled extravaganza that I’d usually make if I were making it for a dinner party. Just doing some preliminary research freaked me out, because all the recipes I found either called for using condensed soup or a heavy cream sauce to bind the rest of the ingredients together. My waistline (and tastebuds) did not approve.
I finally decided that if I expanded my search to savory pies I might find possible flavor combinations – and luckily I hit upon this recipe for mushroom and farro pie. I ditched the pie crust and used the filling as the basis for my casserole.
The recipe, which mixes mushrooms, scallions, garlic, farro with ricotta cheese as a binder, sounded promising. I switched out the farro, which I couldn’t find at the Giant, for brown rice, which was much more economical. I decided to up the health quotient of the casserole and added some cooked spinach, although the bitter flavor was distracting and ended up being a mistake. I also added some Pecorino Romano cheese to the ricotta, to punch up the flavor.
The final result was pretty good – not perfect, but a fine first attempt at a healthful casserole. The mushrooms, garlic, and scallions were a wonderful combination – and they married well with the earthy, chewy brown rice. As I mentioned above, the spinach was not a good idea, but the Pecorino cheese added a salty, savory note to the dish. And using ricotta cheese as a binder was perfect – it was creamy, without being too soupy and fat-laden.
Were I to make it again, I may add more onions or more Pecorino, since it lacked a little flavor. Chopped basil would be a nice addition, as would a spoonful or two of olive tapenade, mixed in with the ricotta. But even if it was an imperfect casserole, I’m still very happy this casserole is in my lunch today.
A fine start to this month’s cooking project.
Recipe: Mushroom, Brown Rice, and Ricotta Casserole
Adapted From Epicurious
1 cup brown (uncooked)
1/2 tsp olive oil, plus more for sautéing vegetables
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 lb spinach
1 lb crimini mushrooms, sliced
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 bunch scallions, washed and chopped,
1 cup whole milk ricotta
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees
In a heavy bottomed saucepan over high heat, bring water to a boil. Add the olive oil, a pinch of salt and brown rice. Reduce heat to low and cook for 40 minutes. When done, transfer to a large bowl.
Cook spinach in a little olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat, until wilted. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from the pan and let cool. Squeeze excess liquid out of the spinach, and then finely chop. Add to the brown rice.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, saute the mushrooms until just soft (5 minutes). Add the garlic and half the scallions, and saute until the garlic and scallions soften (another 5 minutes). Remove from heat and add to the brown rice mixture. Let cool slightly.
In a small bowl, mix together the ricotta and Pecorino cheese. Add the ricotta mixture and the rest of the scallions to the brown rice mixture, mixing everything together until combined.
Transfer filling to a casserole dish. Bake, lightly covered with tinfoil, for 30 minutes. Remove cover and bake for another 10 minutes, to crisp the top. Remove from oven and serve warm. A small side salad and fresh french bread would be nice accompaniments.