The Good, The Bad and The Ugly No. 2

Deep dish drudgery

No! No! No! No hot dog casserole, ever!
No! No! No! No hot dog casserole, ever!

While visiting my parents in Missouri, my father decided to show off his newly acquired culinary prowess by rustling up some grub all on his own. I admit I was nervous at the thought of him having free rein in the kitchen, but his decision to create a casserole sent waves of terror through my grumbling tummy.

Casseroles are often mysterious due to the loose guidelines on what exactly it takes to make one. Many a zealous cook has created a gastronomic monstrosity by throwing everything, kitchen sink included, into a ceramic dish and baking it. The result is often an unidentifiable mush that plops down onto your plate with an ominous thud. Dad’s Mexican inspired creation was actually tasty and got me thinking about how something so theoretically right can sometimes go so wrong.

A good casserole has various ingredients pulled together by a complimentary sauce. Many pasta al forno dishes such as baked ziti qualify as casseroles and demonstrate the simplicity of casseroles. Other oven-Smörgåsbords incorporate the basic meat, vegetable, starch, dairy formula with lip-smacking results.

With such a clear blueprint to follow, it's difficult to understand how so many bad casseroles happen. Cereal and potato chip toppings certainly deserve a large part of the blame, as does relying solely on Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup for flavor. Mixing together a week's worth of leftovers together is misguided at best and just plain insulting to those who have to eat your culinary contrivance. And there is nothing uglier than a crock of crappy foods interbred into dietary disasters with names such as “pile-high surprise,” “hoity-toity tater tot pie” or “tater beef bake.” A reliable rule of thumb? Avoid concoctions that involve layering hot dogs with beans, potatoes and American cheese. Be good to your food, and it will be good to you.