Every few months, my family gets together with a Latin group of friends and their families for a potluck.
This winter it was our turn. As tradition goes, the host brings the main dishes to the table and the others bring the rest. I eagerly announced my plans to share Mexican casseroles, also called cazuelas, budines or pasteles.
The Mexicans couldnt hide their joy – Pati! De veras? Budin Azteca? Cazuela de Tamal?! – and quickly thought of other very Mexican sides to pair with them. The Argentines and Costa Ricans tried to understand what Mexican casserole meant and whether it was supposed to be any good. The Americans in the group (though they consider themselves Latin) were clearly not excited about it.
No doubt about it, casseroles have had their ups and downs in culinary history. Their weakest stand seems to have been in the United States, after being fashioned into two-step-many-can versions in the 1930s and 40s.
But think of all the bright stars in the casserole universe: French cocottes enveloped in mother sauces; British potpies encrusting fillings as wet as British weather; irresistible Italian lasagnas layered with pasta; Peruvian causas with seasoned meat encased in mashed potatoes; Greek spanakopitas with an extra-savory cheese-spinach mix covered in phyllo dough; Middle Eastern moussakas stacked with layers of eggplant; and the not-so-well-known, yet gloriously tasty Mexican cazuelas.
All of those casseroles are assembled, baked and served in the same vessel, which makes them convenient, practical and savvy. They are cooked tightly covered and without a hurry, giving their fillings time to become succulent with fully blended flavors.
Then their messy beauty unravels on your plate. One has to wonder: Why dont we see more of them around, when we all crave flexible meals that can be made in advance?
Mushroom and Rice Casserole (Cazuela de Arroz con Hongos)
8 to 10 servings
With a deep mushroom flavor infusing the Mexican cream (crema), this has the hallmarks of a classic comfort food. If using bigger mushrooms, such as portobellos or larger shiitakes, cut them in half or quarters and then slice.
Make ahead: The unbaked casserole can be assembled, covered tightly in plastic wrap or aluminum foil and refrigerated for up to 2 days, then brought to room temperature and baked. Or wrap well and freeze: To reheat, allow it to defrost in the refrigerator overnight, then let it sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before baking.
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for the baking dish
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium white onions, chopped (2 cups)
2 cloves garlic, minced or put through a garlic press
1 jalapeno or serrano pepper, finely chopped (seeding optional if you want less heat; may add more to taste)
2 pounds mixed mushrooms (such as white button, baby bella, portobello and shiitake), cleaned, dry part of stem removed, sliced
1 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt, or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves and thin part of stems
2 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves and thin part of stems
1 cup Mexican cream (crema) or Latin-style cream or heavy cream
8 ounces (about 2 cups) farmer cheese or queso fresco, crumbled
6 cups cooked white or brown rice
1 cup freshly grated queso anejo, Parmigiano-Reggiano or Romano
Heat the butter and oil in a large, deep 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and stir to coat; cook for about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they are translucent and the edges begin to brown. Add the garlic and jalapeno or serrano pepper; cook for 2 or 3 minutes, until softened. Add all of the sliced mushrooms; sprinkle with salt and pepper, and gently combine with the onions.
Cover and cook for 5 to 6 minutes, until the mushrooms have exuded their juices and the flavors have melded. Uncover and cook for 7 to 8 minutes or until the juices have evaporated.
Add the cilantro and parsley, stirring to combine. Add the cream and the crumbled queso fresco or farmer cheese; stir until the mixture is thoroughly combined and the cheese has melted. Continue cooking for 3 to 4 minutes, adjusting the heat to keep the mixture barely bubbling at the edges. It should still be very saucy. Turn off the heat.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Use a little butter to grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or the equivalent. Spoon the cooked rice into the baking dish and level it out without pressing down hard. Pour the mushroom-cilantro mixture on top and gently spread to level it. Sprinkle with the grated cheese.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the cheese has melted and gently browned. Serve hot.