This weekend is an event in and of itself – what more can one ask for than four glorious days of food, leftovers, and shopping – that is, minus the dishes, of course! And just in time for Thanksgiving, I would like to reintroduce you to the good old-fashioned casserole and the man that knows it best, David Bryson, aka Johnny Casserole.
Bryson, an alumnus of the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (now a Le Cordon Bleu school), is familiar with the Chicago dining scene. He has done cooking and serving stints at the likes of the Speakeasy Supper Club, Atwood Café, the Gage, Sweets and Savories and South Water Kitchen. He was ready to stake his skewer in the Chicago foodie-scene via the route of the food truck phenomenon (sustainable fish tacos), but wasn’t able to maneuver his way through the city’s licensing labyrinth.
Not easily dissuaded, Bryson brooded over the idea of opening his own restaurant, based on what he calls the “slow food movement.” But he wasn’t convinced that a restaurant that only served-up casseroles – albeit slow cooked, piping hot casseroles – would cover the exorbitant overhead associated with a physical space. So, Bryson brainstormed, put the two ideas together, and voilà, Johnny Casserole was born.
Bryson has all the makings of a girl’s best friend. When you are in a pinch, he’s there (on time, too), equipped with an oven-ready Pyrex dish loaded with casserole comfort. And, he’s anything but complicated – just pick your casserole, select the date and time you would like it delivered (24 hours advance notice is all that is asked of you), wait for Bryson to ring your bell, pop it in the oven, convince your family or guests you made it yourself and take a bow.
Bryson’s casseroles are the real deal – an upgraded version of your mom’s that have forgone the globby and glutinous canned cream soup and week’s leftovers and replaced them with locally sourced, organic goodness. His Ain’t Your Momma’s (tuna noodle casserole) was my first Johnny Casserole experience and my most memorable to date. It arrived with a fresh, crusty Red Hen baguette and was loaded with chunks of tuna (not the canned kind), cremini mushrooms and artichoke hearts. Bryson’s casseroles are substantial; the tuna noodle fed our family of four for three days.
Today Bryson is based out of the communal Kitchen Chicago in Ravenswood Manor. He won his long-time battle with the city and was finally awarded his license last April. To this day the city is not sure how to classify Bryson, though he now falls under the heading of caterer. Despite challenges, his “slow-food movement” has attracted quite a following of busy professionals, mothers juggling work, children, and schedules, bachelors, the recently divorced or recently married, new mothers just home from the hospital, families mourning the loss of a loved one, friends getting together for Saturday or Sunday brunch (Bryson’s North Woods is a brunch must)…the list is endless – so much so that Bryson is currently working on his list of 1001 Reasons for a Casserole! There is really no single niche market for his hot dish, explains Bryson.
As he discusses his passion for the all-American casserole, Bryson recalls his mother who he lost a little over a year ago to breast cancer. “I just remember people stopping by every other day with a dish of some sort; it was truly comforting.” This is the sense of comfort that Bryson hopes his casseroles bring to each new taster; the remembering of years past, of holiday dinners, of laughter, and especially of warm, full bellies. Ah, the casserole!
1 lb. Noodles*. Cooked. Al Dente. (I like Cavatappi, but hey, use whatever strikes your fancy.)
6 cups Bechamel** ( Seems like a lot, I know, but I like a cheese-sauce. What can I say.)
The Cheese Section:
3 c Sharp Cheddar, grated
1 c Fontina, grated
1 c Parmesan, grated
1 c Mozzarella, grated
Use can substitute other cheeses as well. The ones here are but one amongst dozens of cheesy options.
1 c Heavy Cream
1 T Salt
1 t White Pepper, finely ground
1/4 c Chives, chopped for garnish
Heat bechamel in a large pot or Dutch oven without burning it. When hot enough to add some cheese, add the cheddar, but not all at once. Gradually. And use a whisk.
When cheese is incorporated thoroughly – meaning no lumps – add the cream with the aforementioned whisk. Now add the salt and pepper and whisk again.
Carefully dump pasta in the pot of cheese sauce, Stir it all up with as big a rubber spatula you’ve got until combined nicely.
Turn out into a 3-quart Casserole Dish. (9x13x2)
Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. (Can be longer, but if it is, cover it with plastic wrap.)
Then: Top with mozzarella, fontina & parmesan. In that order.
Bake at 400 degrees, approximately 45-60 minutes, or until top is browned to your desired brown-ness.
Let it rest at least 10-15 minutes before serving. Otherwise it could explode.
Garnish with those chives.
* You can cook your noodles beforehand. (When al dente, drain well then cool on a sheet pan. When cooled down toss with a teaspoon of oil, put pasta in a container & stick it in the fridge.)
** Milk thickened with roux. This is your homework assignment.