Particularly in the Midwest, where I'm from, casseroles (or "hot dish" if you're super OG) are a staple year-round, but hit the spot when the leaves start to change and there's a nip in the air. Once belonging to the realm of church ladies, potlucks, and Your Mom, recipes for warm baked deliciousness are making a comeback, but often with a bit of a makeover. The widened availability of unique and sometimes exotic meats, vegetables, and cheeses from all over the world means that your repertoire isn't limited to tuna surprise and your aunt's "Mexican Fiesta Dip."
Now certainly, I don't know anyone who didn't tuck into a tuna noodle casserole or chicken parm pasta as a kid, and those old dogs still have their place - no judgment here. But as a working parent, I like to research and make casseroles that are a little lighter but no less stick-to-your-ribs to get us through the week. My favorite ones are those I can dress up or down - the spaghetti pie from my blog has been a dependable friend for everything from visiting in-laws to a bright spot in an otherwise rainy Wednesday night.
The beauty of any casserole is that it incorporates vegetables, protein, starch, and - everyone's favorite part - a generous dose of dairy to bind and enrich, so your side dish game can and should be limited to a simple green salad with a bright vinaigrette. If you're looking for one, you can try my favorite basil vinaigrette.
1. Mushrooms & Greens with Toast from Smitten Kitchen
Anytime you can make a legitimate dinner out of things you'd otherwise put on toast to snack on, it's a big winner in my book. Here, my favorite ingredients get put to work in a one-skillet, practically communal meal: kale, mixed wild mushrooms, torn bread turned into fresh croutons, and funky fontina. All of it gets roasted up together in the oven, then all that's left is to scoop it into a bowl (or just grab a fork, as suggested in the recipe) and you're in comfort food heaven. I'm also of the opinion that this would only be made better by a crisp-edged fried egg on top, but that's me.
2. Best Baked Ziti from Bon Appetit
Growing up in a part of the Midwest that's home to a lot of Italian-American families, it's not hard to find baked mostaccioli or ziti. However, it is hard to find good baked pasta. As the BA description suggests, most baked pasta dishes turn out dry and chalky, if there's even enough cheese in there at all. Too many folks just... bake the pasta. With sauce. Maybe a bit of cheese on top, but that's it. What the BA recipe gets right is understanding that baking will dry out a pasta that's not properly protected by a creamy sauce. So while you do have to take an extra (albeit short and easy) step of making a parmesan béchamel, you'll be richly rewarded with baked pasta that will make you swear off those foil pans of the lame stuff forever.
3. Mac & Cheese from Wooden Spoon Society
Speaking of béchamel... we need to talk about mac & cheese. If you've been just mixing your pasta with bagged shredded cheese and a bit of milk, baking it up and calling it a day, then wondering why you're feeling so unfulfilled in life, you are missing something. That something is - you guessed it - béchamel, a simple white sauce made from butter, flour, and milk. For my mac & cheese, I add about half the cheese into the béchamel, forming a dangerously creamy, cheesy sauce that holds everything together. The other half is distributed throughout the cooked & sauced pasta, lending the cheesy stretch that is pretty much mandatory in any good mac. NOTE: this is the one dish in the roundup that is decidedly not light! Tuck this one away for when a blizzard hits.
4. Roasted Vegetable Lasagna from Ina Garten, via TheKitchn
Until I hit it big and buy a house in the Hamptons, Ina Garten and I may not have a ton in common, although as a fellow proponent of personal uniforms and lifelong fan of tunics, I salute her and her array of button-downs. However, one of the many things I admire about her and her recipes is that they are thoroughly tested. I've never made an Ina recipe that didn't turn out well. This roasted vegetable lasagna is no different, and I love that she switches up the cheese filling to complement the roasted vegetables. This recipe offers a slightly lighter, definitely more nutritious take on traditional lasagna, which, let's face it, can sometimes land like a brick in your belly. Just because it's cool outside doesn't mean we don't have things to do!
5. Sausage Casserole from Jamie Oliver
If you haven't been roasting sausages in the oven with all manner of goodies - tomatoes, beans, herbs, root vegetables, whatever - your fall/winter just got a lot better with this recipe. I find fresh sausages (i.e. ones that aren't pre-cooked or smoked) to be the ideal protein for casseroles, owing to the fact that you can just throw them whole into whatever you're cooking, they lend their flavor to the dish, and they come out ready to eat. This insanely easy recipe for a sausage casserole - essentially just an anglified cassoulet, as Oliver notes - takes pantry staples like canned tomatoes and cannellini beans, combines them with fresh sausage links, then bakes the whole thing under a layer of crisped breadcrumbs, chilies, and herbs. What's not to love? (He uses Cumberland sausages here - a traditional British sausage with herbs and spices, but not dissimilar to something like a fresh bratwurst. I have made this with fresh Italian sausage as well, and it's divine.)
6. Cottage Pie from Real Simple
Good golly, do I love a cottage pie. A cousin to shepherd's pie, cottage pies skip the extra labor of a pastry top and are covered instead with mashed potatoes baked golden in the oven. They're simple, the ingredients can flex to include whatever you have on-hand, and it's exceedingly satisfying every single time. I've been known to do a sort of Mediterranean version by swapping out white potatoes for sweet potatoes, ground beef for ground lamb, changing up the spices, and it still turns out great. Not surprisingly, this also makes for excellent leftovers and next-day lunches.
7. Spaghetti Pie with Mozzarella & Chard from Wooden Spoon Society
Another example of baked pasta that employs a béchamel-esque method to create a sturdy and filling pasta "pie." I love using hearty greens like chard and kale in fall and winter recipes - it's a great way to eat relatively seasonally in cold weather, when most parts of the country aren't exactly churning out a rainbow of fresh produce. This pie becomes - dare I say it? - a beautiful centerpiece to a nice meal, so much so that you could make this the main course, add a salad, and even the most red-blooded meat eaters among you would walk away very happy. Bonus: it reheats amazingly as leftovers. If you end up with any.
8. Baked Ricotta from Leite's Culinaria
This one's for the nights when it's just you, a loaf of crusty bread, and your Netflix queue. Or it's a perfect opener for a dinner party if you're feeling, you know, sociable. There is a scant ingredient list for this recipe, and though it looks like a souffle, there's no careful handling involved. Whack the ingredients around a bit - add some fresh parsley and lemon zest to the mix if you're feeling adventurous - bake, and serve.
9. Autumn Root Vegetable Gratin with Herbs & Cheese from Food52
Much like the spaghetti pie above, I can see this as a gorgeous main course in a vegetarian meal. It's also not hard to imagine as a side on a Thanksgiving table, but I given how easy the recipe is, I can see this turning into a frequent midweek treat at our house. I LOVE parsnips and think they're usually misunderstood - there are not nearly enough recipes out there that highlight their sweet earthiness. Here, they blend with other root vegetables and v. classy Gruyere and Pecorino to make a memorable cold-weather dish.
What are some of your favorite cold-weather savory pies, bakes, and casseroles?
Home cook sensei. I write about recipes that are way more than the sum of their parts, usually with only 5 ingredients or less. I'm also the person you call if you're hungry and in Chicago.