“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”
― Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
A few weeks ago, my dad celebrated a milestone birthday: 70 years old! It’s still hard for me to believe this fact, even as I type it. For those of you who don’t know my dad, allow me to introduce him to you. I think you’ll like him; it’s really hard not to. The first thing you’ll notice about my dad when you meet him is his stature: At 6’3” tall, he strikes a commanding presence. Most, if not all, of the boys whom my sisters and I had brought home to meet him were quite intimidated by him… at first. But then, after spending a few moments with him, you’ll notice his soft facial features, his reserved demeanor, his wavy, silver hair; handsome and soft-spoken, he exudes a quiet authority. He is truly one of the smartest people I know: To this day, I can ask him just about anything and he usually has the answer. You might think that such wisdom comes with age, but I can tell you that my dad has been wise for as long as I have known him. He is that rare combination of book smarts and street smarts. In the span of a weekend, he could help me with my homework, put together a Barbie Dream House, fix a bunch of broken things around the house, play a couple of songs on his guitar, and remodel our kitchen. (Okay, so maybe that last project took a few weekends to complete.)
My dad has always enjoyed a good home-improvement project. We used to joke that the reason we moved to a new house when I was in ninth grade was because he ran out of projects to do at our old house. I think my dad has always been self-motivated, and he truly revels in the feeling of a job well-done. Perhaps his work ethic was cultivated during his stint in the U.S. Navy, or it was instilled in him by his own parents, who also worked hard, or maybe it was some combination of these, but he has worked hard all of his life and poured his heart and soul into every job he’s ever had. His employees and colleagues have nothing but respect and admiration for him, and even though he has been retired for several years now, he is still in touch with many of them, and they still come to him for advice.
At his core, my dad is serious and introverted, but if you get to know him well enough, you will likely catch glimpses of his less serious, sillier side. He has been known to put on comedic skits at office Christmas parties and occasionally tear it up on the dance floor, much to everyone’s surprise. His sharp intellect is matched only by his wit: He has the best sense of humor and can always make me laugh. His grandsons (my sons) think he is the funniest person they know. He never fails to make them laugh either. And when something makes him laugh, I mean really laugh, his face scrunches up and his eyes tear up and he’ll rub his eyes and laugh so hard that he can’t speak. I love that.
My dad cultivated in my two younger sisters and me an appreciation for the finer things in life. He taught us to appreciate good music, public television, and NPR; to enjoy fine wines and a well-crafted cocktail; and to always dress appropriately for the occasion. (Because of him, I still have a hard time wearing yoga pants to the grocery store.) I grew up listening to The Eagles, The Beatles, and—my dad’s all-time favorite—Jackson Browne; their music is still played often in my parents’ house, and I always think of him every time I hear any of these artists on the radio. He never missed an episode of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion on NPR, nor has he ever missed an episode of This Old House. (About 10 years ago, I ran into Norm Abrams from TOH in a local Whole Foods Market; I couldn’t wait to tell my dad! I think Mr. Abrams was quite surprised by such an, um, enthusiastic greeting from a 30-something mom, perhaps not his typical fan demographic.) These days, CBS Evening News is also must-see TV for my dad, but so is The Young and the Restless, due to my mom’s influence (allegedly).
When it comes to food, my dad is a creature of habit. Although he can appreciate a gourmet meal as much as the next foodie, he finds sustenance in simplicity. He loves peanut butter (Skippy, always), oatmeal, bananas, hot bowls of soup (hot enough to scald your tongue, or he will politely send it back to the kitchen), scrambled eggs (he makes the best), and a good red wine, but when he’s had a hard day, nothing hits the spot like a bourbon Manhattan on the rocks with a maraschino cherry. And when it’s his birthday, he requests the same meal every year: “casserole.”
My parents grew up in the era of the casserole, so it should come as no surprise that my sisters and I were often served various casserole dishes for dinner. I can vividly recall many family dinners being served from my mom’s avocado-green casserole dish, perhaps the most frequent of which was her cheeseburger casserole. This was—and still is—my dad’s favorite, and it is known in our family simply as “casserole.” It is a charmingly retro, comforting dish of Kraft Deluxe Macaroni and Cheese (with the premade cheese sauce in the foil packet, NOT to be mistaken for the powdered cheese mix in the paper packet) mixed with cooked ground beef, topped with more cheese (preferably slices of American cheese), then baked in the oven in mom’s casserole dish until golden and bubbly.
With its reliance on packaged, processed foods, cheeseburger casserole isn’t the most healthful (or modern) meal, but as someone who requests fettuccine Alfredo once a year on her birthday, I have no business denying anyone his or her birthday indulgences. Nevertheless, I wondered if I could make a more modern, more healthful, even more flavorful version of my dad’s beloved casserole, without losing any of its comfort-food properties. In other words, could I make a less processed, more wholesome version of cheeseburger casserole that still tastes good and that my dad wouldn’t send back to the kitchen?
I’m happy to report that after several tries, I think I’ve accomplished my mission. The first change I made was to omit the ground beef (I haven’t eaten red meat in well over a decade, and even my mom uses ground turkey now when she makes casserole). I tried substituting ground turkey for the ground beef, which worked fine, but, according to my young taste-testers, it was a little bland and dry. The next time around, I substituted some chicken sausage instead, which was more flavorful, less dry, and thus met with unanimous approval. The cheese sauce proved to be more difficult, as I wanted to concoct a creamy, cheesy sauce to coat the pasta, but I didn’t want it to be too heavy or rich. (And bonus points if I could retain the signature orange color of the original casserole without artificial coloring!) After multiple attempts, I finally landed on a creamy sauce that began with a basic flour/butter roux (substituting some olive oil for the butter), but instead of using lots of flour and lots of butter to thicken the sauce, I added puréed butternut squash (which bumped up the nutrition and added some orange color) and Greek yogurt (which helped balance the sweetness of the squash), then added just enough cheese to provide comforting richness and cheesy flavor without overdoing it (i.e., without sending me into a carb- and dairy-induced coma-like state). Then I baked it in the oven in my favorite casserole dish—a turquoise enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, the modern version of my mom’s tried-and-true avocado-green one—until it was bubbly and golden brown on top. The boys deemed this final version a rousing success, and after eating this casserole for dinner at least three times in the last month (ah, the joys of recipe testing!), they aren’t even tired of it. I even made a vegetarian version of this dish, omitting the chicken sausage and topping it with whole-wheat breadcrumbs—still delicious!
I wish my dad lived closer so I could share this casserole with him (he and my mom live on the other side of the country in California), but for now, I guess photos will have to do. Happy 70th Birthday, Dad! Here, I made you your favorite.
As I mentioned above, this dish is vegetarian-friendly (and just as delicious) if you omit the chicken sausage. You can also make this dish gluten-free if you use gluten-free flour for the sauce and a gluten-free pasta, and omit the breadcrumbs (or make them from gluten-free bread).
Finally, this recipe looks like a lot of steps, but it is relatively easy to pull together and comes together more quickly than it seems. If you are pressed for time, there are a few shortcuts you can take: Omit the chicken sausage; use already-puréed butternut squash* (canned or frozen); use pre-shredded cheese (just try to avoid any unnecessary additives or preservatives); and/or use store-bought packaged breadcrumbs (look for unseasoned breadcrumbs with all-natural, recognizable ingredients; panko breadcrumbs are a good substitute, especially if you like an extra-crispy topping).
- -- Butter, oil, or nonstick cooking spray for coating the inside of the baking dish
- -- ¾ pound mild Italian chicken sausage (optional), casings removed and discarded
- -- 1 pound dried pasta of your choice (I used cavatappi here, but elbow-shaped pasta is the traditional choice. For added nutrition and fiber, use whole-wheat pasta.)
- -- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- -- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- -- 1 large or 2 small garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press
- -- 2 tablespoons flour
- -- 2 cups milk (I used 1%-fat milk, but 2%-fat or whole milk should also work fine.)
- -- 1½ cups butternut squash purée*
- -- ¼ cup plain Greek yogurt (I used 2%-fat Greek yogurt.)
- -- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- -- 4 ounces (about 1 cup) grated Gruyère cheese**
- -- 6 ounces (about 1½ cups) grated sharp cheddar cheese, plus an additional 1 ounce (¼ cup) for sprinkling on top, if desired**
- -- ½ teaspoon kosher salt, or more (or less) to taste
- -- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- -- Fresh breadcrumbs for topping the casserole (optional, but they add a nice textural contrast if you omit the sausage and make it vegetarian)***
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly coat a casserole dish/Dutch oven or a 13-by-9-inch baking dish (or similarly sized baking dish) with butter, oil, or cooking spray; set aside. (My turquoise enameled cast-iron “casserole” dish pictured here is a 6-quart round Dutch oven.)
- Cook the chicken sausage, if using: Heat a large skillet over medium heat, then add the chicken sausage. Break the sausage into large chunks with a spoon and cook, stirring frequently, until the sausage is browned and cooked through, about 8 to 10 minutes. Set aside.
- Cook the pasta: Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add a couple of pinches of salt and the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until not quite al dente, about 2 minutes less than the package instructions indicate. (You want to undercook the pasta slightly here because it will cook more in the oven.) Drain and set aside.
- Make the cheese sauce: In a medium saucepan, heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat until the butter is melted. Add the garlic, stir for a few seconds, then stir in the flour; cook, stirring continuously, about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in the milk. Bring to a simmer, then turn the heat to low and cook, whisking frequently, until the sauce starts to thicken and coats the back of a spoon, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the butternut squash purée, yogurt, and mustard, and whisk until combined and smooth. Turn off the heat, then gradually add the Gruyère and cheddar cheeses (about a cup at a time) and whisk until the cheeses are completely melted and the sauce is smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- In a large bowl or pot (I use the pot in which I cooked the pasta), combine the cooked pasta, cooked sausage (if using), and cheese sauce and stir together until well combined. Pour into the prepared baking dish and sprinkle with additional grated cheese and/or breadcrumbs.
- Bake the casserole, uncovered, in the preheated oven until the breadcrumbs are crisp and golden brown and the sauce is bubbling around the edges, about 15 to 20 minutes.
To yield about 1½ cups of puréed squash, I start with about 3 cups (1 pound) of peeled and cubed squash (from about half of a large butternut squash). Fill a medium saucepan with an inch or two of water, then place a steamer basket (like this one) inside the pan, making sure that the water isn’t coming up above the bottom of the steamer basket. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, then add the squash cubes to the steamer basket. Turn down the heat to medium, cover the pot with a lid, and steam the squash until soft and easily pierced with a knife, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the squash from the pot and set aside in a bowl to cool to room temperature. Add the cooked and cooled squash to a blender or food processor and purée until smooth, adding a couple of tablespoons of water if needed.
** You can use any combination of these cheeses that you’d like, or use all sharp cheddar if you prefer. In my recipe testing, however, I found that this combination of 1½ cups of sharp cheddar and 1 cup of Gruyère worked the best, as it balanced the sweetness of the squash and provided the best depth of flavor and the silkiest sauce. (In my experience, cheddar alone made for a slightly grainy, yet still tasty, sauce.)
*** To make the breadcrumb topping, mix together in a small bowl:
-- 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs (from about 2 slices of bread, coarsely ground in a food processor)
-- 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
-- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage or parsley (optional)
-- 1 tablespoon olive oil
Depending on the size of your baking dish (and the surface area of your macaroni and cheese in the dish), you might not need all of the breadcrumb topping. Use as much (or as little) as you'd like.
Did you make this recipe?
I’d love to hear how it turned out for you! Leave a comment below and/or share a picture on Instagram with the hashtag #wholesomefamilykitchen!