A Call for Helping One-Pot-Dish Hands

An e-mail from "Newton Mom," the Newton, Mass.-based sister of longtime reader "Bethesda Mom," arrived in my inbox last week, and I've been thinking about it ever since. Here's her kitchen scenario:

A friend has organized a very large effort at my daughter's now former elementary school where once a month families make a tuna noodle casserole, using the identical recipe, and then she delivers them to a woman and children's homeless shelter in Boston called Rosies Place where they are served for dinner to the community.

We have all been making these for some years. Apparently, it has been so successful that we have "graduated" to a different night of the month and are now free to change the menu and recipe.

The new recipe does not need to be a casserole, must be able to be standardized, frozen and reheated and be easy enough that people will be willing to make the time and effort to put it together. Cost is somewhat less of an issue, I think. I was thinking of something with chicken, but wondered whether you might have any thoughts.

The previous recipe called for one pound of macaroni mixed with two cans of tuna, one stick of melted butter and 12 ounces of shredded cheese cooked briefly. We would like to make something healthier, but keeping it easy enough so that a kindergartener could help and a sixth grader could make independently.

First of all, Newton Mom gets the big high-five for being part of such a noble effort. Her dedication to feeding others in need is inspiring and cause for applause.

A few thoughts immediately come to mind: First of all, I'm happy you can graduate from the tuna casserole not only because of all that butter and cheese, but because canned tuna, particularly albacore, is high in mercury.

If it's chicken you're considering, bear in mind that even a skilled and independent sixth grader will need the supervision of an adult. That said, I'm thinking chicken enchiladas, made with a salsa verde (don't worry; you can use jarred tomatillos) and corn tortillas, would be a nice change and could easily be reheated.

Since you've already tried your hand at pasta casseroles, what about a rice dish? What if you stewed a whole cut-up chicken and laid it over a bed of rice in a baking dish and topped it with feta? There's a tempting-sounding recipe for Greek-braised chicken with onions, olives and feta (among other grand ideas) in Marsha Rose Shulman's "Ready When You Are," a terrific book with a one-pot focus. You could leave out the olives and use the feta on top so that it melts when baking.

I also like the sound of her baked lentils and red cabbage, which could easily be added to rice for a complete protein, and I'm digging the idea of her Indian-style rice pilaf with cauliflower, which could easily be bulked up with chicken.

Shulman's black bean stew with greens could easily be tweaked with canned black beans; the greens would reflect the season -- chard, kale, turnip greens, spinach -- and corn tortillas would line the baking dish.

Although none of these ideas is as elementary as assembling tuna-ed noodles into a baking dish, they will satisfy Mom's interest in a more wholesome and nutritious meal.

So Mom, let me know if any of these appeal, and I'll get busy in the kitchen. Meanwhile, I'll open up the floor for one-pot tips, tricks and tried-and-true recipes. Let's help Newton Mom help the homeless moms of Boston!

Today's Eco-Bite: What's it like to eat a diet of foods grown and raised within 150 miles of your home? Follow the experiences of 15 people from around the country who are eating a diet that is 80 percent local for an entire year on Locavore Nation, a blogging project of Lynn Rossetto Kasper's public radio program, The Splendid Table.

By Kim ODonnel |  April 2, 2008; 10:24 AM ET Community
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Kim, what about a recipe that uses rotisserie chicken? Almost every grocery store seems to offer them these days and any elementary schooler can help pick meat off a chicken.

Posted by: kml | April 2, 2008 10:56 AM

Something enjoyable and relatively easy to make is lasagna. I'm fond of lasagna bolognese with a meat sauce and bechamel, though the American classic with ricotta and mozzarella is also tasty. I'll admit this recipe is not low fat, but it's a nice treat and can be combined with a salad for a complete meal. The recipe also multiplies easily.

I like using no-boil lasagna noodles that have been soaked 5 min. in hot water. They soak up the sauce, but don't dry out the dish.

You can also make a nice, herbed red sauce to lower the fat content of the dish. A really simple red sauce can be made from canned tomatoes and a few fresh herbs. Mint works well in this recipe, is inexpensive, and goes a long ways. Basically, mince a large onion and several cloves of garlic. Cook in a bit of vegetable (preferably olive) oil for a few minutes. Add a 28 oz. can of chopped tomatoes. Bring to a simmer and toss in a few tablespoons of chopped herbs (basil, oregano, mint all work well and mint is inexpensive).


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | April 2, 2008 11:21 AM

Rotisserie chicken was my first thought, too. My wife has an easy chicken divan recipe which consists of:

Meat from 1 Rotisserie Chicken
1 can cream of mushroom soup (or 1 can cream of celery soup)
1 cup sour cream
1 cup mayonnaise
2 Tbls Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbls lemon juice
1 bag frozen broccoli (thawed)
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup bread crumbs combined w/2 Tbls melted butter for topping

Posted by: Mike Sorce | April 2, 2008 11:23 AM

I suppose this is still a noodle-based casserole, but what about a "goulash" type of thing, with hamburger/turkeyburger, noodles, tomato sauce, some kind of veggie (I use corn, but think that may be an "acquired" taste), topped with cheddar or parm? Alternatively, shepherd's pie freezes very well & is pretty easy to make, with a minimum of ingredients. (Could even use instant potatoes for it in a pinch)

Your suggestions sound very yummy, Kim, but most seem a bit on the adventurous side for food that is probably meant to appeal to the most palates possible. Just a thought...

Posted by: Washington, DC | April 2, 2008 11:26 AM

one of my favorite dining-hall meals in college was vegan stuffed shells made with a potato/tofu mixture in lieu of ricotta. could probably do a faux ricotta and make a veg. lasagne too.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 2, 2008 11:30 AM

Lasagna and shepherd's Pie both sprang to my mind as well. A bonus to both is the ability to sneak in extra vegetables to boost up the nutrition content. I love to put chopped carrots in the tomato sauce I use for Lasagna. Zucchini and spinach are also great additions. For shepherd's pie, I put in carrots, corn, and peas. Frozen works for all of these veggies, and their addition can also help stretch a dish a little further by adding bulk.

Posted by: AK in DC | April 2, 2008 11:35 AM

What about a sort of retro tetrazzini? You could use rotisserie chicken in bite-size pieces. Cooked spaghetti, pimentos, cream of chicken / celery / mushroom soup, canned mushrooms and the liquid, parmesan cheese, melted butter, parsley. It is easy to double. You could even include some frozen carrots or pieces of celery or other vegetables. I agree that finding some dishes with "neutral" flavors will likely appeal to the most people. Another thought is some sort of fried rice-type dish, or (lightened) beef stroganoff.

Posted by: WashDC | April 2, 2008 12:00 PM

I make a chicken and black bean dish--also includes onions, pepper strips, ground ginger. We got the recipe from a youth hostel in England. I use canned black beans, frozen pepper strips, and it can be made with chicken tenders cut in half (to reduce knife usage).

Posted by: Repatriated ex-pat | April 2, 2008 12:48 PM

I like cooking chicken breasts, pork roast or beef all day in a crockpot with Mexican type herbs/spices. Drain,Shred with two forks. You can then line a casserole dish with tortillas, layer meat, beans, salsa and top with a layer of cheese. Bake until dish is bubbly and cheese melted.

Posted by: Easy Mexican Style Meal for Groups | April 2, 2008 12:51 PM

What about turning chili into a casserole? A layer of rice, a layer of chili, and a sprinkling of cheese.

Chili can be super easy and quick -- brown ground beef/turkey/chicken (1 lb) and chopped onion (1 medium). Mix in a packet of chili seasoning. Add a small can of tomato paste. Add one can each of pinto, kidney, and black beans (the 12 oz size). Heat through.

Of course, I know this won't meet chili purists standards, but a pot of this can keep my BF happy for a couple of meals.

Parents can help with the chopping and the older kids can be learning to safely use the stove.

If chicken sources are an issue -- canned chicken is not bad in pinch -- TJ's has canned white meat chicken that could work for enchilada casseroles.

Posted by: Kitchen Cat | April 2, 2008 12:57 PM

I agree that non-adventurous is in order. These moms are dealing with a lot of turmoil and may not have the extra energy to convince kids that lentils are yummy.

How about Sloppy Joe's?
1 onion, chopped,
1 pound ground beef or turkey
1 can tomato soup
1 squirt mustard
1 squirt ketchup

Brown onion and ground meat together until meat is cooked through. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Include a package of hamburger buns with the meat.

Posted by: BAB | April 2, 2008 1:45 PM

This recipe, from Allrecipes.com, is easy, reasonably healthy, and a hit with everyone (of every age) that I serve it to.

Mexican Casserole

oil for frying
1 pound cubed skinless, boneless chicken breast meat
1/2 (1.25 ounce) package taco seasoning mix
1 (15 ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 (8.75 ounce) can sweet corn, drained
1/4 cup salsa
water as needed
1 cup shredded Mexican-style cheese
1 1/2 cups crushed plain tortilla chips

In a large skillet over medium high heat, saute chicken in oil until cooked through and no longer pink inside. (I add some diced garlic here.) Add taco seasoning, beans, corn, salsa and a little water to prevent drying out. Cover skillet and simmer over medium low heat for 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
Transfer chicken mixture to a 8x11 inch baking dish. Top with 1/2 cup of the cheese and crushed tortilla chips.
Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes. Add remaining 1/2 cup cheese and bake until cheese is melted and bubbly.

Posted by: Lois | April 2, 2008 1:46 PM

I'm guessing that the reason the tuna casserole has been considered a success is that the ingredients are all standard - other than one person putting in shredded colby and another putting in shredded monterrey jack you're not going to have variations in the end result.

So first thought that came to my mind was baked spaghetti. Brown 1 pound of ground beef, stir in a jar of spaghetti sauce and 1/2 cup parmesan. Then toss with a pound of spaghetti. Put in a baking dish and top with another 1/2 cup parmesan. Bake.

Not the healthiest or most original recipe but one that's going to turn out fairly consistent from a wide variety of cooks.

I'm actually a vegetarian so I wouldn't make this today. But I loved it when I was a kid.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 2, 2008 2:12 PM

A favorite at our house growing up was Hamburger Pie.

Mix together:
1 lb. Hamburger browned (drained)
tomato soup (for some reason, this is prefered over sauce)
green beans

Top with mashed potatoes and cheese!

Also, I am a huge fan of Giada's lasagna rolls--which basically take your favorite lasagna recipe (if freezing, substitute half of ricotta with cottage cheese), roll up filling in individual noodles, place in cassarole dish, cover with jar sauce, and bake. Takes a little time, but would make portion planning really easey.

Posted by: Beth B. | April 2, 2008 2:12 PM

what about stuffed peppers? it's a break from all the pasta, and a great way to get in more veggies.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 2, 2008 2:40 PM

I also vote for comfort food- satisfying and not adventurous. I find noodles to be one of the few foods that most kids will eat. How about a chicken casserole with noodles and broccoli?

Posted by: Flynn08 | April 2, 2008 3:05 PM

Similar to the Mexican casserole -- what about a Mexican lasagna? You can use no-cook lasagna noodles or a layer of crumbled tortilla chips as the pasta, then the layers can be a mix of sauteed onions, canned corn, canned black beans, canned tomatoes (with chiles if possible), and a jar of salsa. Maybe a layer of cooked spinach. And/or a layer of shredded chicken or ground beef (real or fake). Sprinkle on some shredded Mexican-style cheese. Repeat layers as wanted. Bake until bubbly. Totally simple and very delicious!

Posted by: IHateParis | April 2, 2008 3:32 PM

Why not jumbalaya? Easy, one dish (and cheap to make) - you can make it pretty healthy by adding more veggies and you could add chopped, cooked chicken or ham if you wanted (or not). My version takes about 30-45 minutes:

3 14.5 oz can chicken broth (or veggie broth)
1 28 oz can chopped tomatoes
3 cups rice
1 small can tomato paste
1.5 cups each chopped celery, onion, green bell pepper
bay leaves
spices (blend or cayenne)
chopped cooked meat (optional)

Just cook the veggies in the butter until the onions are clear, then add the tomato paste. When it's turned a darker red, add add all ingrediants except rice and bring to boil. Turn down, let simmer 5-10 minutes, then add rice. Cook on low heat for 20-30 minutes.

Posted by: Nola | April 2, 2008 3:41 PM

Thank you all so very much for these terrific ideas! I may add some to my own weeknight standards.
I really need to give credit though to Deb who organized the entire thing and does all the transporting. I am going to forward the link to her and let her decide for the group. Regards!

Posted by: Newton Mom | April 2, 2008 6:20 PM

I'd also recommend keeping it simple.

I make Kim's roasted broccoli at least once a week, but with a combo of broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower. Sometimes I quarter some red potatoes. I'd bet that you could cube a pound of boneless chicken breasts, add a tiny amount of liquid, and have an easy one dish meal that would travel and reheat well.

Maybe Kim will chime in on this idea; should it be covered? Lower temp but longer cooking? (If I didn't already have Tilapia seasoned ready to fry, I'd try it tonight 'cause I have the veggies and potatoes ready to roast.)

Posted by: GAFF | April 2, 2008 6:46 PM

Props to my sister, Kim, and all the great "Mighty Appetite" fans who've written in for this worthwhile effort. One dish that I made for a similar event here in the DC area (supplying dinner for the families at Children's Inn at NIH), was sweet Italian-style chicken or turkey sausages baked with spaghetti sauce and slices of provolone, with a side dish of pasta, or whole grain sourdough loaves brushed with olive oil, chopped garlic and a little oregano or Italian seasoning for garlic bread. If using pasta, it can be whole wheat for added fiber, and sauteed veggies like onions and peppers can be added to the sauce over the sauages.

Posted by: Bethesda Mom | April 2, 2008 10:00 PM

Here is a simple, inexpensive chicken casserole that can be dressed up in so many ways, with herbs, veggies, etc and then stretched with noodles or rice. The crunchy topping is irresistible.

4 chicken breasts, boneless, skinless, cooked, cut into bite sized pieces.
1 can cream soup (chicken, mushroom, celery, etc)
8 oz sour cream
A bag of frozen veggies, your choice

Mix all ingredients together & pour in cassarole dish

1 roll Ritz crackers
1 stick butter, melted

Mix together and place over chicken.

Bake 350, 20-25 min

You can also add cooked noodles or rice into this before baking.

Posted by: Vivian | April 2, 2008 10:13 PM

My work group made this every month for a shelter. We got tired of it, but it was always a big success, even in the summer. Whenever we tried something new, people asked for this one back! It was easy to serve, the ingredients were all easily available, and no cooking skills required. We bought boneless chicken breasts when they went on sale and froze them to save some money. We served with cranberry sauce, some sort of frozen vegetables, and rolls. Dessert was fresh apples, bananas, and oranges with either individual ice cream cups or cookies. Bananas were also always a big hit, with the apples being less popular.

Per casserole: Place 6 boneless chicken breast halves in a greased casserole. Top each with a slice of swiss cheese. Cover with one can cream of celery/chicken soup, diluted with 1/3-1/2 cup milk. Cover that with one box stove-top type stuffing mix that has been moistened with hot water. Cover pan with tin foil. Bake for about an hour, or until chicken tests done and everything in bubbly. Each one serves 6.

Posted by: Lou | April 3, 2008 9:47 AM

I've been making a veggie one-pot dish lately that is inexpensive, easy and very adaptable. And tasty too!

1-2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
1 15 oz can pinto beans, drained
1 15 oz can chickpeas, drained
1-2 cups greens, loosely packed (parsley, cilantro, cabbage, anything leafy)
1 medium or large sweet potato, cubed
1 tsp cumin, or to taste (any earthy spice can work here, especially Indian spices)
2 tsp red pepper flakes (or any spicy pepper -- I use minced chipotle en adobo)
2 tsp brown sugar
1-2 cups fresh green beans, diced zucchini, or anything green and not too dense (broccoli, for example, would not work here)

Heat the olive oil in a pot over medium high heat.

Saute the sliced onion for 5 minutes, but don't let it get too soft. Add the beans and greens and cook for a couple minutes more until heated through. (You can add the greens at the end too, but bitter greens like parsley have more time to mellow if you put them in at this step.)

Add the cubed sweet potato, spices and brown sugar. Add just enough water to cover everything, but don't swamp the mixture -- it's OK if a little sweet potato is sticking up out of the water.

Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle but steady simmer. Cover the pot for 20-25 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes are nearly tender. Adjust the spices and sugar at this time to taste.

Add the remaining green vegetables (put the leafy greens in at this time too if you want), cover the pot and simmer for another few minutes until the potatoes are perfectly tender and the vegetables are bright green and tender-crisp. If there's too much liquid in the pot when you add the veggies, don't cover it, and raise the heat so that the liquid will reduce.

Let cool for a few minutes and serve.

Posted by: Mike B. | April 3, 2008 10:54 AM

Please, I know casseroles and canned soup are a staple, but it is so insanely unhealthy (even the "thin" versions) get rid of the cream of anything soup.

What about a dairy kugel? You can keep it healthier by using 1% milk and lowfat sour cream. Add raisins, dried apricots, dried cherries or other fave fruit.

Posted by: Better Food for all | April 3, 2008 12:40 PM

I have a great recipe that will be so fitting for a the children to make (thoug h it will require adult supervision) and it's great for parties, both for children and adults! It's something I grew up eating at all our home parties, still to this day. And, I actually recently made it for a class of 3rd graders at a local charter school. They loved it: "Bocadito"

Pickled Chicken Sandwiches


1 boneless chicken breast
1/4 cup sweet relish
2 tbsp. Pimiento
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/2 pack of cream cheese
tomato slices, salt/pepper to taste


Boil the chicken in salt water for about 15 minutes. When chicken is ready, place on cutting board and cut into 4 pieces. Save a little bit of the water it was cooking in. Add chicken and water to blender and mix/chop until all of the chicken has fully separated and become kind of like a paste. Remove all chicken from blender and put in large bowl. Add mayonnaise, cream cheese, relish and pimiento and mix together until it is all one soft spread. Add salt and pepper if desired for taste.
Take two slices of bread, preferably wheat, and stack on top of one another. With your butter knife, cut off the crust on all four sides. Spread your chicken mix on one slice and top again. Cut diagonally and eat!

Makes about 8 sandwiches!

Tips and Tricks: You can add tomato or cheese to your sandwich too.


Posted by: FlaNboyantEats | April 3, 2008 1:35 PM

Kim, this is a question that I was reminded of by today's comments. I want to make 10 frozen meals for my wonderful stepdaughter who will have a baby in May. She is a vegetarian, and she lives far enough away so I can't deliver something fresh every night. Veggie Lasagna will probably be two meals. I'm a bit leary of beans since she will be breasfeeding.
I need ideas for four more casserole type dishes that she can just thaw, heat and eat during the first couple of weeks. Any ideas from you or your readers?

Posted by: Theresa | April 3, 2008 4:55 PM

Here's a good, tried & true dish that I take to potlucks and shut-ins. My picky kids grew up on this and never complained. Everyone likes it. I believe it's Amish in origin. It's not vegetarian but I'm sure it could be adapted by using seasoned black bean patties in place of the sausage.

Corn and Sausage Casserole

1 lb. bulk pork sausage (one of the tubes of breakfast suasuge)
1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp. salt
dash of white or black pepper to taste
2 cups milk
1 can of whole kernel corn or frozen niblets (about 2 cups)
3 pounds potatoes (approx.), freshly cooked & mashed

Cook the sausage slowly in a skillet or sauce pan, breaking it into pieces, until it is done. Drain thoroughly and spread over the bottom of a pie plate or casserole dish.

Blend the flour, salt and pepper into the cold milk to make a slurry and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens and bubbles.

Stir the corn into the white sauce and spread over the sausage. Top with mashed potatoes, spreading to the edges to seal the surface.

Bake uncovered at 375 degrees for 30 minutes until heated through and slightly browned on top.

Serves 4 to 6.

This can be easily made ahead, kept in the fridge or freezer before baking, and reheated. It holds up well as leftovers that can be reheated in the mic for a quick meal.

There certainly is no need for tons of butter or extra salt to make this dish tasty. A green salad or sliced cukes would easily round out this meal.

Posted by: Magz | April 5, 2008 8:52 AM

I note that there are a lot of dishes that are strongly seasoned, which could wreak havoc on the innards of people under stress, plus kids like mild food.

Judging by some of the comments about how well a dish was received, there must be some desperate eaters in these shelters, considering how many of the dishes use prepared, packaged foods, are high in salt & fat and include very distinctive, strong seasonings.

This project is very admirable and I am inspired to start this in my own neighborhood. Thank you for sharing this with us and inspiring us to help our sisters and their children.

Posted by: Magz, again | April 5, 2008 9:14 AM

I know I'm a bit late to the party here but I'd point out that for someone feeding their kids at a shelter low-fat is probably not a good choice. Something that's reasonably high in fat and calories maybe the better choice. However you might want to find a recipe where you're getting the fat from olive oil rather than butter.

Posted by: Elizabeth | April 8, 2008 10:05 AM

I actually don't vote comfort food - I vote something good and healthy - please please please remember that while you are thinking this is a "one night a month" thing (thus we can eat fattening, unhealthy food one night a month), these women have to subsist and get all of their daily nutrients from the foods that they are given at this shelter. As do their children, who need fruit and vegetables to grow, just like ours.

Posted by: to think about | April 8, 2008 11:18 AM

At the shelters I have been involved with, breakfast and dinner were served, but not lunch. Some guests would be able to eat lunch elsewhere, but some would be eating only two meals a day. So I'd first want something that was very nutritious, but also something that the kids would eat (otherwise, the nutrition is wasted), and filling enough to last them.

I seldom make anything complicated for my own family. A big fave is black bean soup with rice. A bag of beans, a medium onion, bay leaves, water, a pressure cooker, rice and another pot to cook it in, two containers to transport the meal, and fruit.

Or pasta bake--I like to use tortellini, one jar of sauce, some water, bake for one hour covered at 350. Serve with salad or fruit.

Or hamburger, rice, cheese, reconstituted onion soup. Cook and drain the hamburger, mix all ingredients in a casserole dish, heat until rice is cooked and cheese is bubbly. Brown rice wouldn't be noticeable in this dish.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 8, 2008 11:59 AM

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