Building a Healthier “Flexible Casserole Recipe”

tightwad gazetteFive years ago, I wrote an article about the “flexible casserole recipe” that I found in the wonderful book Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn.

In my original article, I lauded the flexible recipe as it enabled people to easily fit whatever ingredients were on sale into a simple casserole that would work for dinner. This meant you could truly pick up whatever was on sale, fit it into the “flexible casserole,” and it would reasonably work.

Here’s the original recipe, from page 625 of Complete Tightwad Gazette:

1 cup main ingredient (tuna, cubed chicken, turkey, ham, seafood, etc.)
1 cup second ingredient (thinly sliced celery, mushrooms, peas, chopped hard-boiled eggs, etc.)
1-2 cups starchy ingredient (thinly sliced potatoes, cooked noodles, cooked rice, etc.)
1 1/2 cups binder (cream sauce, sour cream, can of soup, etc.)
1/4 cup “goodie” (pimiento, olives, almonds, water chestnuts, etc.)
seasoning to taste
topping (cheese, bread crumbs, etc.)

That basic structure makes a lot of sense and some elements of it are quite healthy. The only parts that are really questionable in terms of health are the binder and the topping (the “goodie” could be questionable, too).

So, let’s see what we can do to make this recipe a bit healthier without sacrificing flavor or cost.

A healthy and cheap binder Most casserole recipes use a creamy soup as a binder, but quite often the element that makes them into an effective binder is usually corn starch, which is very calorie dense. So, what can you use instead?

One option is to use eggs. This will turn the casserole into more of an egg strata, which means it’s appropriate for any meal (including breakfast). Eggs are protein rich and add much less salt and fewer calories to whatever casserole you prepare.

Ground flaxseed (if you can find it for cheap) is another good binding agent to add to casseroles. This is more of a “sticky” binder than a “structure” binder like egg whites, but it will certainly do the trick. Almond flour also works, in my experience.

Another option that works well in some casseroles is simply mashed-up beans. They can function as a great binder in a “softer” casserole, especially when used in a small quantity. Don’t expect a highly firm casserole when using them, though.

A healthy and cheap topping The best solution here is to take an ordinary topping and make it healthier.

If you’re going to use cheese, for example, use a low-fat and low-sodium cheese and perhaps mix some dried (or fresh) herbs in with it so that you use a smaller amount of cheese to provide the covering you’d like without sacrificing flavor.

If you’re going to use bread crumbs, use whole wheat crumbs and also augment them with dried herbs.

Lower salt ingredients Choose low salt ingredients along the way. Many of us already get quite a lot of salt in our diets, so choosing low salt ingredients is an easy way to make a dish healthier.

So, what might you come up with if you did this in a healthier fashion?

Cheesy Breakfast Bake
1 cup cubed low-salt ham
1 cup mushrooms
1 cup shredded potatoes
1 1/2 cups egg whites
1/4 cup black olives
ground black pepper
1 ounce cheese tossed with tarragon

Just bake it at 350 F until the egg is cooked.

Light Lunch Salad
1 cup tuna
1/2 cup chopped hard-boiled eggs
1/2 cup finely sliced celery
1 cup cooked long grain brown rice
1 1/2 cups low fat mayonnaise
1/4 cup black olives
seasoning to taste

This can be served cold or even used on sandwiches.

Chicken Casserole
1 cup shredded cooked chicken
1 cup broccoli
1 1/2 cups cooked long grain brown rice
1 cup vegetable stock
1/2 cup ground flaxseed
2 ounces fat free cheese
ground black pepper

Mix thoroughly and bake at 350 F until the cheese is thoroughly melted and the broccoli is done.

Southwestern Casserole
1 cup cooked shredded beef (or ground beef or black beans)
1 cup salsa
1 1/2 cups cooked long grain brown rice
1 cup mashed black beans
1/4 cup black olives
seasoning to taste
2 ounces shredded cheese sprinkled on top

Bake at 350 until the cheese is melted. Serve with corn tortillas.

Each of these recipes follows that same basic structure. Each of these recipes is reasonably healthy (and in some cases, quite healthy). Each of these recipes can be altered and experimented with based on what you have on hand, what’s on sale, and what you like.

As long as you know the basic recipe, the rest simply follows. Never be afraid to experiment with a meal at home. Try mixing things together and find out what happens. You might find something great. You might not. Even in the worst case, it’s just one meal. In the best case, you’ve found something you enjoy. In either case, if you use a basic structure like this and fill in the holes with what’s on sale and what you already have, it’s an inexpensive meal.

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