A casserole is not traditionally considered to be one of New York City’s favorite foods; it’s rarely served at restaurants or parties, and local magazines and blogs are unlikely to devote any page space to the dish. In fact, many would say that the casserole, with its fattening butter and cheese, associations with Midwestern states, and literally square presentation is antithetical to the principles that New York is known for. While these things assumptions may hold true, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you were in Greenpoint on Wednesday night, because the 5th annual Casserole Cook-Off brought more than two dozen creative casserole chefs together to see who could cook the most popular unpopular meal.
The cook-off was held at Brooklyn Label, but for those who did not know the location, Franklin St was full of casserole-carrying competitors holding their dishes as they made their to the coffee shop. Brooklyn label began hosting the cook-off three years ago, after the event outgrew creator Emily Farris’ Greenpoint apartment.
And just what, exactly, is a casserole. Farris, known as the Casserole Queen, defines them as “a dish with two or more solid ingredients plus a binding agent that is cooked in a pyrex or cast iron baking pan.” During the first few years of the competition, she only allowed mixed casseroles to enter, in order to preserve the Midwestern casserole ideal. She has since relaxed her standards to include layered items. “People turn their nose up at tuna noodle, but not at a lasagna or shepherds pie,” two dishes which she now considers to be casserole.
The definition of a casserole is vague enough to allow for virtually anything to be tossed into a glass or ceramic pan and baked, and that’s exactly what the 25 entrants in this years Casserole Cook-Off did. Ingredients varying from the gourmet like homemade pepper sauce and duck confit and to the low end like cornbread mix or frozen vegetables were used in the entries, often in the same casseroles. The diversity in ingredients is due to the fact that contestants who enter the cook-off are as likely to use a generations-old recipe as they are to create one from whole cloth.
“I brought in a veggie casserole that my mom has been making for years,” said Stephanie Auteri of the team “On a Casse-Roll.”
“She only ever made it when we had exciting people over, so she never made it for me often. But it’s the dish that got my husband into eating vegetables.” Her casserole, which combines a bag of frozen mixed vegetables with large amounts of butter, cheese and mayonnaise, was one of the more traditional entrees into the cook-off, and thought it didn’t win, it recalled Farris’ original motivation for creating the competition.
“I realized I had to bring casserole to the masses,” said Farris, describing an incident in which a friend ate more than three servings of a “mac and cheese” casserole she made for a party. The Midwesterner grew up eating the one-dish meals, and has successfully spread their gospel over the last five years, not only with the cook-off but a popular casserole cookbook featuring winning recipes, family secrets, and celebrity contributions.
This year’s Casserole Cook-Off was once again a success, both from a tasting standpoint and as a way to improve the reputation of the much-maligned dish. Tameeka Balance and Kelly Imbrett created a casserole that incorporated rice and beans to represent their Columbia and West Inde heritage. After several trial casseroles, the duo finally perfected a casserole that utilized steak, plantains and the namesake rice and beans. “I had never made a casserole before, but it was something new and challenging,” said Tameeka. “It’s our culture in this dish.”
Another team, consisting of Eric Zawacki and Brian Baldoz, two professional chefs and champions of a variety of other cook-offs, stuck to a more traditional casserole. Using Zawacki’s grandmother’s recipe, they used creamed corn, cornbread, sour cream, onions and cheese, and topped the dish with two different homemade chili sauces.
“It’s the only casserole I’ve ever eaten or made,” said Zawacki.
And thought Farris began her quest to reinvigorate the casserole by focusing on more traditional recipes, the winner of the 5th Annual Casserole Cook-Off was perhaps the most unusual and gourmet recipe. Submitted by Nick Suarez and Mark Kupasrimonkol. Their dish consisted of potatoes, butternut squash, shitake mushrooms, bacon, fried onions and duck confit. Suarez is another entrant who has cook-off experience, as he and another entrant, Theo Peck, run their own cooking competition series in Gowanus. Suarez, who recognized the duck confit’s role in his casserole success, summed up the feeling that was shared by many of the entrants after they had finished their dish.“It’s the first casserole I’ve ever made, but I think it’s really good.”