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Spicy Polenta Lasagna, front, and Smoky Vegetable Casserole, are easily made, each taking about 45 minutes. They call for an appetizing combination of ingredients that are not hard to find.
AP Photo/McIlhenny
Spicy Polenta Lasagna, front, and Smoky Vegetable Casserole, are easily made, each taking about 45 minutes. They call for an appetizing combination of ingredients that are not hard to find.

Fall casseroles make dinner quick, easy

By Patrice Stewart
DAILY Staff Writer

pstewart@decaturdaily.com ˇ 340-2446

What's for dinner?

Surely you always plan ahead for a whole week of dinners.

And of course you'll find time to carry out your plan somewhere between work and picking up children from band or ball practice and before you leave for your club meeting or evening business obligation.

Since life keeps getting busier and busier, the cook of the house must plan and carry out meal preparation quickly.

That makes the all-in-one-dish casserole ideal for weeknight meals, and several new cookbook authors have come to your rescue.

For fresh twists on classic comfort food, along with time-saving tips and recipes that can even go into the freezer, the novice cook (and those with little time to spare) will especially like "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Cover & Bake Meals" by Ellen Brown (The Penguin Group, 2005, $18.95).

Brown said she began her cooking journey 40 years ago with her interpretation of Tuna Noodle Casserole. Since then, food tastes and items available on store shelves have changed drastically and become more international.

While sautés and stir-fries are popular now, people still "crave the comfort foods of childhood," said Brown, "and these comfort foods are also consistent with societal demands on our lives.

"Many cover-and-bake meals can be prepared in advance, and they hold well when different members of the family are eating at different times."

Brown includes five or six versions of tuna and noodle or pasta casseroles in this book, along with Sweet-and-Sour Chicken with Pineapple, Snow Peas and Jasmine Rice, and many more ideas.

Ann Kaiser of Taste of Home books also knows that squeezing in time for eating meals is difficult, let alone finding the time to cook them.

"Our latest cookbook, 'Weeknight Cooking Made Easy 2005,' (Reiman Publications, $29.95) puts an end to the 'What's for dinner' dilemma with 202 recipes that let you get a tasty homemade dinner on the table in mere minutes," she said.

Many of those are speedy skillet suppers or updated versions of burgers or sandwiches, with veggies included, such as Southwestern Skillet Burgers, Blue Cheese Chicken Pitas, or Tomato and Shrimp Pasta.

Some recipes may need a salad or quick potatoes, corn on the cob or other vegetable to round out the meal. Of those recipes, 165 can be made in 30 minutes or less, and 39 quickies take under 15 minutes.

The Tabasco/McIlhenny Co. also knows that fall weather turns hungry thoughts toward hearty casseroles. Tabasco home economists have come up with several new taste and flavor combinations, such as Smoky Vegetable Casserole made with couscous, squash, chickpeas, bell peppers, Gruyere cheese and more. Spicy Polenta Lasagna is an updated version of an old favorite.

The next two dishes are from "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Cover and Bake Meals":

Tuna Pasta Alfredo Bake

1 pound rigatoni or penne pasta

3 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 pound white mushrooms, trimmed and sliced

1 garlic clove, peeled and minced

1 10-ounce container Alfredo or four-cheese pasta sauce from refrigerated aisle

1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon Italian seasoning

3/4 cup milk

2 6-ounce cans tuna, drained and broken into chunks (or 4 3-ounce pouches)

1 10-ounce package frozen cut green beans, thawed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup Italian breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 10x14-inch baking pan. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add rigatoni and cook according to the package directions until al dente. Drain and return to the pot.

While rigatoni is cooking, heat butter and oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until butter is melted. Add mushrooms and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 to 5 minutes or until mushrooms are cooked and liquid has evaporated.

Scrape mushrooms into rigatoni and add Alfredo sauce, mozzarella cheese, Parmesan cheese, Italian seasoning, milk, tuna and green beans. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Scrape mixture into the prepared baking pan, level top with a rubber spatula, and sprinkle with Italian breadcrumbs. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Serve immediately. Serves 6 to 8.

Sweet-and-Sour Chicken

1˝ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, rinsed and patted dry with paper towels and sliced into 1/2-inch-thick slices against the grain

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons soy sauce

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

12 scallions, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces, including green tops

1 red bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed, thinly sliced

3/4 cup applesauce

1 8-ounce can pineapple chunks packed in pineapple juice, drained with juice reserved, halved

3 tablespoons firmly packed dark brown sugar

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

1/3 pound snow peas, rinsed and stemmed

2 to 3 cups cooked jasmine rice

Season chicken to taste with pepper and place in a mixing bowl. Stir cornstarch into soy sauce, pour mixture over chicken, and toss lightly to coat. Set aside.

Heat oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken, scallions and red bell pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes or until chicken is opaque. Add applesauce, pineapple with juice, brown sugar and cider vinegar.

Bring to a boil and simmer, uncovered, for 3 to 5 minutes or until chicken is tender and cooked through. Add snow peas, cover and simmer for 2 minutes or until snow peas are crisp-tender. Stir rice into the skillet and cook for 2 minutes or until rice is hot. Serve immediately. Serves 6 to 8.

The next recipes come from "Weeknight Cooking Made Easy 2005":

Southwestern Skillet Burgers

2 pounds ground beef

1/2 cup dry bread crumbs

1 envelope taco seasoning

1 14˝-ounce can diced tomatoes with onion, undrained

1 11˝-ounce can condensed bean with bacon soup, undiluted

1/2 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

In a bowl, combine the beef, breadcrumbs and taco seasoning. Shape into six 3/4-inch-thick patties. In a large skillet over medium heat, cook patties for 3 minutes on each side or until browned. Remove patties; drain. Add tomatoes and soup to the skillet; return patties to the pan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 10 minutes or until meat is no longer pink.

Sprinkle with cheese; cover and heat until cheese is melted. In 30 minutes or less, this makes 6 servings.

Blue Cheese Chicken Pitas

1 10-ounce package ready-to-use grilled Italian chicken strips

1 cup shredded carrots

1 cup shredded romaine lettuce

1 large tomato, seeded and chopped

1/4 cup real bacon bits

1/2 cup blue cheese salad dressing

2 whole-wheat pita breads (6-inch), halved

In a bowl, combine the first five ingredients. Add dressing and toss to coat. Stuff each pita half with 1/2 cup chicken salad. Makes 2 servings.

Tomato and Shrimp Pasta

12 ounces uncooked spaghetti

1˝ pounds uncooked medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 teaspoon minced garlic

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 pound sliced fresh mushrooms

1/2 cup chopped onion

2 14˝-ounce cans diced tomatoes, undrained

3 tablespoons tomato paste

2 tablespoons minced fresh basil

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Cook spaghetti according to package directions. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, sauté shrimp and garlic in 1 tablespoon oil until shrimp turn pink. Remove and set aside.

In the same skillet, sauté mushrooms and onion in remaining oil until mushrooms are lightly browned. Stir in the tomatoes and tomato paste. Bring to boil.

Reduce heat to low. Add the shrimp, basil, sugar, oregano and red pepper flakes. Cook, uncovered, for 5-10 minutes or until heated through. Drain spaghetti; top with shrimp mixture. Makes 6 servings.

Here are a couple of fall casserole recipes from Tabasco/McIlhenny Co.:

Smoky Vegetable Casserole

1 cup couscous

1 cup vegetable or chicken broth

1 tablespoon chipotle pepper sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium zucchini, cut into bite-size chunks

1 medium yellow squash, cut into bite-size chunks

1 medium red onion, diced

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into bite-size chunks

1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into bite-size chunks

19-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

9-ounce package frozen artichoke hearts, thawed

1/2 cup shredded Gruyere or Swiss-style cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine couscous, broth, 2 teaspoons chipotle pepper sauce, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in 2-quart saucepan. Heat to boiling over high heat. Cover and remove from heat; let stand 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Cook zucchini, yellow squash, red onion, red and green peppers and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt about 5 minutes until vegetables are tender-crisp, stirring occasionally. Stir in remaining 1 teaspoon chipotle pepper sauce.

Combine couscous, vegetable mixture, chickpeas, artichoke hearts and shredded cheese in 2-quart shallow casserole dish. Bake 20 minutes at 350 degrees or until mixture is heated through.

Makes 6 servings, each with about 295 cal., 13.26 g pro., 46.12 g carbo., 7.06 total fat (1.82 g saturated), 9.90 mg chol., 736.96 mg sodium, 8.77 g fiber.

Spicy Polenta Lasagna

8 ounces sweet Italian sausage links

1 medium onion, diced

14˝-ounce can diced tomatoes

2 teaspoons hot pepper sauce

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

18-ounce tube prepared polenta, cut into ˝-inch-thick slices

1 cup shredded mozzarella or fontina cheese

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Remove casing from sausage links; break up meat. Cook sausage until well browned on all sides in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Remove sausage to bowl.

In drippings remaining in skillet, cook onion until softened over medium heat. Add to bowl with sausage. Stir in tomatoes and their liquid and hot pepper sauce.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in same skillet. Cook polenta slices, half at a time, until browned on both sides. Repeat with remaining butter and polenta slices.

Spoon half of sausage mixture into a 9-by-9-inch baking dish. Top with half of polenta slices, and half of mozzarella cheese and Parmesan cheese. Repeat layer again, ending with Parmesan cheese. Bake 20 minutes or until cheese is melted and mixture is hot and bubbly.

Makes 4 servings, each with about 436 cal., 19.63 g pro., 20.42 g carbo., 31.27 g total fat (14.44 g saturated), 77.58 mg chol., 1,152 mg sodium, 2.21 g fiber.

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