Every time we move to a new place, it takes us some time to settle in, get to know the local area, and wrap our heads around the local quirks.
We have gotten quite good at it, but even now, for the first several days (or weeks) in a new city we tend to live like tourists – going out, being lazy about cleaning, unpacking, and, of course, cooking. That is why it’s become a ritual for us to officially “move into” a new place by cooking the first proper meal.
This week I did the honours of domesticating our new kitchen in Bloomsbury. And what better way to make a start in a new home than with a recipe that has been with us for almost a decade, is simple, satisfying, and brings back great memories. This Universal Casserole recipe, in its original vegan version, was passed on to me by a friend in Prague, who, in turn, picked it up during his diplomatic tenure in Istanbul.
Back in those days, we had a Christmas Eve tradition of gathering all our expat friends who couldn’t make it home for the holidays (or just did not celebrate Christmas) to an international secular celebration of friendship and good times. One tradition we did observe, though, was the Lithuanian Christmas Eve dinner format, with twelve meat-free dishes. This was one of the things that landed on our table in winter of 2006.
The beautiful thing about this recipe it that once you get the hang of preparing the basic sauce, you have an infinite choice of ingredients to dress it up with – meat, seafood, chickpeas, or plain. It also works with any type of grains (although originally it’s made with bulgur wheat) – you just need to adjust the cooking time slightly and watch the amount of water in the pot.
Here is what you’ll need for this amazing Universal Casserole, in order of appearance:
– a generous glug of virgin olive oil
– a large onion, finely chopped
– a large carrot (or several baby carrots), peeled and grated or finely chopped
– a fresh bell pepper (red or yellow works best), deseeded and cubed
– 2 skinless chicken breasts, cubed or 20-ish jumbo prawns (you can also make a vegan version and use it as a side for a meal of your choice, or eat it on its own – tastes great either way!)
– tomatoes: either one 400g can of chopped, or 2-3 medium fresh ones
– 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped or pressed
– a bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
– 2 cups (500ml) of chicken or vegetable stock
– 1 cup (about 250g) of casserole grains: in this version, I experimented with Waitrose LoveLife Corn Bulgar & Quinoa, but it works equally well with regular bulgur wheat, brown rice, or millet
– salt and cayenne pepper to taste
Put a large, tall pot on high heat, and add a generous glug-glug-glug of olive oil to it. I prefer using a cast-iron casserole pot if I have one available (not this time). It’s a good idea to have all the ingredients prepared, chopped, and handy before you start heating up the oil, as once you get started there’s a lot of action and sizzle.
When the oil is hot enough, add the finely chopped onion and stir around while it sizzles for about 3 minutes. Once the onion is seethrough and aromatic, add the chopped/sliced/grated carrots, and stil-fry for another couple of minutes until soft.
Now in comes the chopped bell pepper. If you are using meat or seafood in your casserole, add it at this stage as well. You will need to stir around the contants of the pot vigorously, until the pepper cubes are soft, and your meat or prawns are thoroughly cooked.
Once your base ingredients are cooked, you can stop frying and start simmering. While still stirring, cover the contents of your pot with tomatoes (canned or fresh), press in the garlic, and sprinkle generously with chopped parsley. Stir everything in carefully, reduce the heat to medium-low, and let simmer for around 5 minutes.
Once the tomato juices have reduced a bit, it’s time for the grains and stock. The general rule here is one cup of grains, two cups of stock – works well with bulgur, rice, and millet. If you are using couscous, pour in less liquid first, and then add as needed. Couscous also cooks much faster that other grains. Watch it closely and don’t let it stick to the bottom of the pot or get mushy.
Pour the grain into the bubbling casserole, cover with enough stock, stir around, and add some cayenne pepper to taste. Put a lid on, and simmer for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding a bit of water as needed.
Your casserole is ready when all the stock has been absorbed by the grains, and the vegetables are completely soft. Give it a final stir, and adjust the seasoning if needed.
Take it off the heat, and leave to set under the lid for another 5-10 minutes.
Serve with a wedge of lemon for an extra twist!