I grew up and lived most of my life in parts of the country where a conglomeration of starch, vegetables, and protein in some kind of (usually creamy) sauce was called a "casserole." My kids will tell you that this catch-all title probably made up over half of our family meals when they were growing up, though I think it was a little lower percentage than they would claim.
Still, it was nice to come home after a long day and be able to answer the "what's for dinner" question with the catch-all "casserole" while I rummaged through the cupboards and refrigerator, deciding on whether it would be rice or some kind of pasta to go with some frozen vegetables and whatever leftover meat might be around.
Now I live in "hot dish" country. In fact, a senior editor of the Rochester (MN) Post-Bulletin recently conducted a contest for the best hot dish recipe. One of the requirements was that the finished product had to include condensed soup, something I no longer use, so I was out of the running from the start. Still, it reminded me that it is really time to start making more of these "comfort foods" as part of my weekly menus.
Saturday I had the joy of cooking with four fellow cooks in my kitchen. We made several main dishes together so everyone could take some home to freeze for later. One of the entrees was a ham, vegetable, and rice combination that freezes well and that became the token "hot dish" for our afternoon in the kitchen.
The recipe that follows is very much a "guideline" rather than a rigid formula, with substitutions easily made and proportions of ingredients changed to fit an individual family's tastes. The dish can easily be cut in half, but making the full amount (easily serving 8 to 10) will provide a meal for now and two or three portions to freeze for later quick meals. Put the extras in freezer bags, and flatten both for easy stacking and for quick reheating in the microwave.
Ham and Rice Casserole
1 pound boneless ham, cubed
1 to 2 stalks celery, diced
1/2 c chopped onion
1/4 to 1/3 c diced bell pepper (optional)
12 to 16 oz frozen broccoli, chopped
2 medium carrots (about 1 1/2 to 2 cups), sliced or diced
1 c processed cheese, cubed or sliced
1 to 2 t mixed dried herbs (see NOTE)
salt and pepper to taste
milk or plain yogurt, if needed
4 to 5 c cooked rice
1. Prepare the rice in a rice cooker, in the oven (see below), or on top of the stove.
2. Meanwhile, saute the onion, celery, carrots, and pepper in a small amount of canola oil, until the onions are just translucent.
3. Turn the burner to low and fold in the broccoli, cheese, mixed herbs, and ham into the pan with the sauteed vegetables. Stir to melt the cheese and blend the ingredients.
4. Add the cooked rice and taste for seasonings. If the mixture is not as creamy as you would like, add a little milk or yogurt.
5. Remove portion to be used for later meals and package for the freezer.
The photo above shows the unadorned version of this, the way you might serve it when rushed for time. However, it can be made even more attractive with a topping of grated cheddar cheese and/or seasoned bread crumbs. Bake for 15 minutes at 350 until the cheese has melted and the mixture is bubbly, or put in microwave for about 5 minutes to melt the cheese.
NOTE: Dried basil, rosemary, and marjoram is a good mixture to go with the ham, but you may want to try other favorite herbs instead.
Fresh broccoli may be substituted for frozen. Trim, cut in bite-sized pieces, and microwave with a small amount of water until a bright green and barely tender--about 2 minutes or so.
Other vegetables may also be added or substituted--frozen corn, peas, cauliflower, etc., as well as any leftovers you might have in the refrigerator.
Oven Baked Rice
If you don't have a rice cooker, this is a great way to make rice in large quantities to have ready for future meals, either in the refrigerator or freezer.
For white rice:
6 c water, boiling
3 c rice
2 t salt
Bring water to a boil in a large, oven safe pot. Stir in the rice and salt, cover tightly, and put in a 350 degree oven about 20 to 25 minutes. Stir after about 15 minutes if desired.
This can be doubled or tripled--if you have a pan big enough--and then put in freezer bags for microwaving later. Larger quantities may require a few more minutes of cooking, so check after 25 minutes and continue baking if needed.
For brown rice:
5 1/2 to 6 c water, boiling
3 c rice
2 t salt
Follow the same process as with white rice, but expect the rice to take about 30 to 40 minutes for this quantity.