How do recipes happen? How is food culture transmitted? In the best sense, a recipe is a quilt of who a family is. Leave it to the internet to make everyone their own rock-star. Celebrity chefs and food bloggers put a face forward and the impression is that each of these individuals created from whole cloth a million different dishes and innovations. The fact is, that we whisk like our moms taught us to do. We roll pie crusts like our grandmothers, and knead with the turn of the wrist that we saw our grandfathers perfect. Not only are my genetics a product my parents and grandparents, but my cooking is descendant of these people as well…innovated here and there certainly…but I am Virgil’s grand-daughter in the kitchen.
Do you cook with ghosts? I do. It inspires and informs me.
My grandfather was from Iowa. He had a knack for sticking corn in a lot of his dishes. Having 7 children (and you do the math on subsequent hordes of rugrats) he also had a knack for making a hearty and filling meal that would feed a crowd. It was always a crowd. He made simple food, with love. But it was a reflection of who he was and the family he led. He and my Grandma Katie were masters of stretching a dollar and using inexpensive ingredients to make nice meals.
Originally, this recipe called for a few of the ghosts of casseroles past, speaking of ghosts. Namely, it called for pimentos and cans of cream of mushroom and cream of chicken soup and canned corn. I have no bones about using the “cream of’s” but I simply made a cream sauce instead and added cheese to thicken it a bit. And instead of pimentos, I roasted a few poblanos and chopped them up…that’s the Lone Star contribution. And given that I can still get good fresh corn, I couldn’t bring myself to used canned. But by all means, if you are in a rush or don’t want to fool with the fresh veggies, omit the cream sauce and use 1 can each of cream of mushroom and cream of chicken soup, and canned corn. But the fresh stuff really is better tasting if you have the time.
I wondered if this dish would make much sense to anyone who didn’t grow up eating Papaw Virgil’s casserole. After all, egg noodles don’t exactly scream “poblano.” But if you follow the trail from Iowa to Texas it makes all the sense in the world.
The essential order of business here is: roast the poblanos, steam the poblanos, de-skin, de-seed, and chop the poblanos, cut the corn, milk the corn, chop the onions, sauté the corn, onions, and poblanos, boil the noodles, brown the hamburger, make a cream sauce, mix it all together with Monterey jack cheese and sour cream, top with cheese and buttered Saltines, and bake. This is a casserole…proportions don’t really matter…prep it, combine it, bake it, eat it. But I’ll give you a little more detail below if you are interested.
4 ears of corn, cleaned of husks and silk
2 poblano peppers
1 medium onion, chopped
6 tablespoons of butter
1/3 cup all purpose flour
2 cups of unsalted chicken broth
½ cup milk
1 cup sour cream
1½ pounds ground beef, browned
8 ounces medium egg noodles, boiled to just al dente and drained
2 cups Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
salt and pepper
12 Saltine crackers, crushed
2 tablespoons butter, melted, for the cracker crumbs
Prepare the peppers: using tongs, hold the whole poblanos over the gas stove-top (or just set them on the grate) turning them frequently until they are nicely blackened and blistered. Immediately transfer them to a re-sealable plastic bag, seal the bag, and leave them in the bag to steam for about 5 minutes. This loosens the skin. Remove the peppers from the bag, and using the backside of your chef’s knife scrape the blackened skin off of the pepper. Use the sharp side to shave off any stubborn bits. The first time I did this, I was hesitant about the blackening and the skin was very hard to remove. Believe me, go ahead and get them nice and black and blistery and then the skin will come off like magic. After they are scraped, wipe off any remaining black bits with a paper towel, cut off the head and remove the seeds, and slice and chop them.
Prepare the corn: take the uncooked ears of corn and cut off the kernels into a plate. Use a very sharp knife and cut down at an angle and corn will come off in tidy little clusters. Set the cob aside until you have done all 4 ears. Over a separate plate, “milk” the corn cobs. To do this, run the back side of your knife heavily down the cob. The juices and remaining bits of the kernels will accumulate in the dish. Discard the cobs after this process. This juice will be added to the cream sauce later for extra flavor.
Boil the noodles, and drain them.
Brown the hamburger meat and drain the excess fat. Sometimes to save trouble, I will wad up a few sheets of paper towels, tilt my pot to one side while piling up the meat on the other and just mop out the extra fat with the paper towels, and remove the towels to the trash or a plate. You have to take care not to burn yourself, but it beats getting grease all over the sink and dirtying up a colander.
In a hot sauté pan, add a tablespoon of olive oil and sauté the corn and the onions for about 3 minutes stirring frequently. Add the chopped poblanos and continue to cook for another 2 minutes. Remove the hot vegetables to a plate (or if you have gone in this order…you can just throw them in with the browned meat. I went out of order when I photographed this and the meat wasn’t ready yet.) In the same pan, melt 6 tablespoons of butter. When the butter has melted add 1/3 cup of flour and stir. Cook the flour for about a minute and then add in the broth, stirring constantly too get all the clumps out. Use a whisk if need be. Once the broth is incorporated, let it simmer and thicken for about three minutes and then whisk in the milk. Let it cook for an additional minute or so and season it with salt and pepper. Add the reserved corn juices to the cream sauce.
Now, in the large stock pot containing the meat, add the cream sauce, the sour cream and one cup of the cheese. Stir to combine and smooth then add the vegetables and the noodles. Taste the casserole at this point. Make sure it has enough seasoning, bearing in mind that you are about to put some salty crackers on top. But, it does need salt. Put this into a 9” x 13” casserole dish which has been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.
In a medium bowl, crumble the crackers and toss them with 2 tablespoons of melted butter. Spread the crumbs on top of the casserole. Bake the casserole for at least 30 minutes at 350 degrees or until it is bubbly around the edges and the crackers are golden. Remove from the oven. Allow the dish to rest for 5 minutes and then serve.
Notes: when I last made this dish, I pulled it off at a break-neck speed and used every pot in my kitchen because I was running late to pick up one of the kids. One could, no doubt, achieve a lower dirty pan count by slowing down and using one big stock pot to do everything. Give it some thought before you start.