Technically, this casserole isn’t appropriate for babies under a year, but I’m calling it “Baby’s First Casserole” because I think it’s a good food choice for a parent who’s interested in trying to share a meal with their infant. The process of making it produces baby food as a, um, by-product. Also, though I’ve kicked it up a lot, there’s a lot of elements in here that bear a strong similarity to baby food.
This was basically a “Clean out the half-empty jars and bags of frozen vegetables” exercise, so amounts on some items (The vegetables) are approximate, and you can improvise as you see fit. Other than the cauliflower, all the vegetables were chosen purely on the basis of “I’ve got a bag of these taking up space in the freezer,” so use whatever you’ve got ready-to-hand. It’s got some elements of a Sheppard’s Pie, and some elements of a lasagne (This whole thought experiment started with “What if I made a casserole that was layered like a lasagne, but I used an Alfredo sauce instead of a tomato sauce…”) One of my goals was try to do something with color, because most of my meals end up being so mixed that there’s not really distinct colors in them.
- 1 lb ground beef
- 1 lb bulk sausage (hot)
- 1 16oz jar alfredo sauce
- ~½ cup heavy cream
- ~3 tbsp butter
- 2 tsp vegetable oil
- 1 cup onions, diced
- 16 oz cauliflower, steamed
- ~8 oz butternut squash, cut up and steamed
- ~12 oz peas, steamed
- ~6 oz roasted red peppers
- 2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/2 lb cream cheese (You might prefer to substitute ricotta here. Like I said, I was using what I had)
- You may need some other sauce-type things right at the end. Here’s what I had on hand:
- ~2 tbsp Cacciatore sauce
- ~1 tbsp Skillet Chipotle Pumpkin Sauce
- Cajun Seasoning
- 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Saute the onions in a couple of teaspoons of melted butter and vegetable oil in a medium-large pot. Mix the beef and sausage together and add them to the pot, then add the Worcestershire sauce and about a half a cup of water and cook over medium low until the meat has lost most of its redness. Drain the meat and onions. If everything worked out properly, the water should have kept the meat from clumping together, but since we live in the real world, it probably didn’t. Break it up as best you can. I pulsed it a few times in the food processor. Return everything to the pot and add the whole jar of alfredo sauce and a tablespoon or so of cream. Fire it up to a low simmer and leave it there. I like some cajun seasoning pretty much in everything alfredo, so I added a pinch, but there’s going to be so much flavor going on here that you won’t want to go overboard.
In a medium bowl, mix the cream cheese, half the mozzarella and three quarters of the parmesan. Add a pinch of garlic, oregano and basil, and add enough cream to work it into a thick paste.
Food-process the cauliflower into a mash. Take a few spoonfuls out for baby to enjoy with you, then add a pinch of salt and pepper, and a few pats of butter, and a splash of cream, pulsing in the food processor until you get about the texture of mashed potatoes. Take it out and set it aside.
Same deal with the squash. Whip it into pulp, set some aside for baby, then add butter and cream as needed to get a pudding sort of thing going on. Now, I found that on its own, the squash didn’t have a lot of body and was a little too sweet, so I mixed in a few spoonfuls of the cauliflower.
Put the squash off to one side and do the same thing with the peas. The peas are texturally more complex than the cauliflower and squash, and will come out sort of like redskin mashed potatoes. After taking out Dylan’s portion, I added cream but decided not to add any butter this time. Your call.
Finally, pulse the red peppers. They become more of a chunky salsa than a mashed potato. I didn’t add anything to these at all, but I also didn’t think Dylan would be interested.
Take a deep casserole dish or lasagne pan (I used a 13-inch lasagne pan, but it only ended up about halfway full. I think you’d get more interesting textural contrast with a smaller pan and thicker layers) and spread a thin layer of the meat sauce on the bottom (If I’d had some prosciutto left, I think I’d have lined the pan with it). Then spread a layer of the cheese mixture onto that. If you can’t get the cheese to spread properly, work in a little more cream. Next, choose one of your vegetable mashes — I used the cauliflower first, and spread that in a thin layer atop the meat. Make sure you don’t use all of it — you’ll want to hold back between ¼ and ½ at this stage. Next is another layer of meat, another layer of cheese, and another layer of vegetable (Don’t use the red peppers here. Well, okay, do whatever you like I guess). and repeat until you run out of something. Try to work it so that you end on a meat layer.
Now that we’re nearing the top, it’s time to bring things together. Sprinkle the top with the rest of your mozzarella and parmesan. Now, take all the vegetables you’ve held back, and the red pepper puree, and any other thick sauces you’re itching to get rid of, and use them to top the casserole. If the quantities work out, just spread them out in stripes over the top. Or get creative: with peas, red pepper and cauliflower, you could top your casserole with an Italian flag. If your food artistry is up to it, do a festive pattern or something. Thanks to lack of planning, I ended up with a sort of Mondrian thing. The cacciatore sauce ended up going on mine because I reached the end of everything I had prepared and was still a quarter casserole short.
Cover with tin foil and then into the oven for an hour at 350°F. Let it stand for a bit to firm up before serving.
Leah had the foresight to snap a photo of my creation before we slaughtered it with a serving spoon
Dylan enjoyed the peas while Mom and Dad enjoyed the casserole with some leftover pasta salad as a side dish.