Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Zen and the Art of Casserole Assembly

Oh, the things I wish I'd known when I was young.

Take the ingredients for a basic bake pictured at the top of this post. They look simple enough but for me they represent small lessons learned over decades.

Mise en Place

I enjoy the calmness of preparing and laying out all the ingredients for a dish before I start cooking. I can focus without the distraction of the cooking process.

I once thought this was a method to speed along television cooking shows. Then I learned this was how restaurant kitchens usually operate, and there was a term for it: mise en place, putting in place.

I like to eyeball the ingredients together, then decide if the dish balances: usually I decide there isn't enough cheese, or this is an opportunity for fresh herbs. Quantities are generally not critical with a bake.

For the dishes my partner cooks best, I often do the mise en place, then he takes over. It's a great way to share cooking.


Vegetables usually have a better flavor and texture when roasted rather than steamed. Roasting pushes out water, enhances texture and concentrates flavor. The Maillard reaction layers even more flavor.

Vegetables for a bake are a make-ahead ingredient. If we're cooking a meal in the oven or barbecue, we may roast some extra vegetables for a bake later in the week.


The trick is always to have enough flour, but not to have it sitting on the shelf for too long.

We use a variant of the kanban three-bin inventory system used in industrial lean production.

The main flour bin is in the bulk section at our local co-op. The other flour bins are two small plastic bags in a Tupperware container in our pantry.

Kanban for flour, canola, eggs, spices.
When I empty one bag, I place it on a shopping list to remind me to restock.


When making a roux, I first heat the butter until all bubbling stops. At that point I integrate the flour with the butter.

The bubbling is water steaming off. Flour forms lumps where there is water, so waiting until the bubbling stops means never having lumps in the béchamel sauce.


These days there are are some wonderful local American cheeses. My current favorite "everyday" cheese is Sartori Classic Montamore from a Wisconsin farm.

There is only one Parmesan, though: Parmigiano Reggiano.


We never throw away stale bread; instead it goes in the "bread bag" in the freezer. This gives us a ready supply for bakes, stuffings, bread salads, and bruschetta. If we need to dry the bread, the microwave does a good job.

Rather than topping a bake with breadcrumbs, I incorporate the crumbs into the sauce. They help maintain volume, and I like the texture.

Egg Whites

Beaten egg whites give a bake a light texture, tending towards a soufflé.

Egg whites are best beaten at room temperature because they'll take on more volume. I've learned to lighten a béchamel sauce by stirring in some of the beaten egg white. It's then easier to fold in the rest of the egg white.


Nutmeg is meant to be grated over a hot, cheesy egg-bake.

I buy spices in tiny quantities from my co-op, using kanban to maintain our stock. Most of our spices are whole seeds.

Bulk nutmeg at our local co-op.
You won't see nutmeg in the picture at the top of this post because I forgot to include it. I realized the omission when I went down a mental timeline while staring at the ingredients en place.

Note: You can find the recipe here in our recipe book.


  1. Thanks for your nod to the underapprecitated nutmeg!

  2. Yeah, I know, it's always an afterthought.