I have to admit back in the day I called this the Can of Casserole because it involved opening a can of cream of chicken soup, a can of olives, a can of Rotelle, a can of green chile peppers and buying a pre-roasted chicken or poaching a Costco chicken breast while I was opening all those cans. At one point in my life, and I shudder to admit this, I even used crushed Fritos as the base layer.
Boy have times changed. I do still shop at Costco – it’s a great place to buy cases of Northwest wine and beer, Beecher’s or Tillamook cheese, organic sugar and maple syrup. But that’s my consumable limit there.
My challenge since taking this local pledge is to replace as many of my family’s comfort foods with “from scratch” options as possible. In this case that has meant figuring out how to make things like tortillas from scratch and replace canned items with home grown and home canned things.
And while I do generally make all our tortillas from scratch, either using Wardeh’s spelt tortillasor the recipe on the back of the Bob’s masa harina bag for corn tortillas. I even went so far as to nixtamalize dent corn from Oregon last year and grind it in the food processor but I’m trying to take a step back this year and regain some balance in my life so I broke down and bought corn tortillas. I don’t know where the corn was grown or where they were made so it was a bitter pill to swallow but something has to give and that seemed a good place to push this week.
I’ve previously mentioned I like to make build upon meals where one night you roast a chicken (or two or three while you are at it) and successive nights you turn that into new meals lest your family mutiny. I do this not really to save money because sometimes pastured meat costs less than other things you may fortify it with, like local cheese in this case. The chicken was $4.50 per pound but the Beecher’s cheddar, even through Costco was $8 per pound. However, eating cheese and eggs seems more sustainable in the long run to me than consuming lots of meat which it sometimes feels like we do in excess while trying to eat locally.
Just over a year ago we were very close to becoming vegetarian in response to learning the truth about what we were eating. Instead, we decided to learn everything we could about food and only buy it from ethical and local farmers. Surprisingly, meat is one of the cheapest things we eat now. Pastured meat is cheaper even than local, organic legumes!
So build upon meals represent shortcuts for me more than monetary savings, although sometimes they also represent huge monetary savings in the case of bone broth that become the basis of other extremely frugal meals.
The Can of Casserole is one of those meals that can be frugal to make from scratch but can cost a small fortune when you are buying all those cans! I used to buy a rotisserie chicken, use the meat and throw away the carcass ($2.5 for half of the chicken), can of olives ($2.50), can of Rotelle ($3), can of green chilies ($2), can of cream of chicken soup ($2), container of sour cream ($3) and bag of tortillas ($3). I’m just guessing at these prices since it’s been so long now so if you think these numbers are way off feel free to let me know. That totals $18 to make this casserole.
I can now make it for $12 using all local, organic (Beecher’s is not organic in certification but is organic in practice), pastured chicken and home grown food. That represents purchased corn tortillas ($3), 1/3 roasted pastured chicken ($5), 1/4 pound Beechers ($2), home canned green tomato/chili sauce ($1), home cured olives ($.25), milk ($.75) and pennies for 2 tablespoons of flour, butter and odd spices. Not bad for a meal that feeds my family for several nights. You could make this even more frugal (shave off $2) by making the corn tortillas from scratch and omitting the olives since I recognize not everyone wants to cure their own olives. Also I buy local, raw milk which costs considerably more than buying organic dairy pool milk at the store so you could get this down even more by replacing the milk in this recipe (shave off another $.25 that way.)
That means what was costing $18 to make using highly processed ingredients of dubious quality and supporting food corporations I disagree with could cost $9.50 to make using all organic, local, pastured real foods. Granted it takes a little longer to make it this way but in all honesty if you are using leftover roast chicken and buying the tortillas it takes about 15 minutes to make the sauce – not too much longer than it takes to open, empty and rinse out all those cans for the recycling bin. You saved much longer than 15 minutes by not making a last minute trip to the store so you’ve got time to spare.
If you wanted to make this vegetarian you could easily replace the chicken with black or pinto beans but that would change the costs. Buying organic but non-local black beans would bring the cost down even further while buying organic local black beans might raise it.
Now on to the recipe…which is really a non-recipe. That allows you to use what you have in your freezer and pantry which is where things really get frugal. Cooking with what you have is lesson #1 in frugality.
Begin by making a white sauce. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a sauce pan. Add 2 tablespoons of flour and whisk until they are blended. Cook them for several minutes. The mixture will begin resembling mashed potatoes.
Add 2 cups of milk, whisking to smooth out the lumps and cook for about 10 minutes until the mixture begins to thicken. At that point you can add your spices – roast garlic or garlic powder, cumin, chili powder, oregano, grated cheese and/or home canned chilies or salsa to your taste.
Spread one layer of corn tortillas (or polenta) in a lasagna pan. Over that scatter your cubed or shredded chicken, any corn of other veggies (squeezed of excess water) from your freezer and about 2/3 of your sauce.
Cover that with another layer of corn tortillas or polenta. Top that with the remainder of your white sauce base and a generous layer of shredded sharp cheddar or other cheese. Queso fresco would be great here as well. I like to sprinkle chili powder or paprika on the top cheese layer because I like the added depth it gives to the cheese.
Bake in a 350 degree oven until the sauce begins to bubble and it’s warmed through, about 45 minutes. This is another of those casseroles that you could assemble the night before and pop into the oven day of, or it could be frozen in smaller sizes for a future convenience dinner.
How about you? Do you have any “can of” casseroles? I bet if you used this white sauce as the foundation to replace any of the creamed soups you could convert legacy recipes just like this. In fact, I’m thinking of going to the Rotelle website to get more casserole ideas for my green tomato chile sauce which I canned last summer and to the Cambpbell’s soup website to get more ideas for creamy casseroles like this since my family loves them.