I have a darling Russian neighbor and friend who has put me on a program for happiness and success. Here is her daily prescription: Each day commit at least one random act of kindness. Write down what you did so you’ll be reminded to do it daily. Then record three things each day that you are grateful for, and identify the one thing you enjoyed most each day. Add some exercise and meditation, hard work+play, and you’ve got a happy life. Simple and wonderful advice. Instead of writing our daily results down, Ron and I try to discuss them each night, at dinner.
I thought about this as I was making a casserole for a friend who is ill (is that a “random” act? Not sure, but I’ll take it). When I make a give-away casserole, I always puzzle over it a bit. It needs to be portable, and freezable, and delicious.
My fallback is a comfort-food dish I like to make: I call it Kitchen Sink casserole, because I use what’s on hand and I don’t use a recipe, so it’s slightly different every time. But we’ll call it Gratin L’évier, the French word for kitchen sink, because it sounds ever so much more elegant, as does most everything in French (mini French lesson: le lavabo is only a bathroom sink; a kitchen sink is called un évier).
The casserole is a baked ziti, or baked penne, or whatever short pasta you have on hand. The French would call this a gratin, but it’s more of a mac and cheese on steroids. Even if you are one of those compulsive recipe followers, give this one a try by winging it. You can’t really mess it up. And it’s quick, no sauce to cook.
First cook and drain the pasta. A one pound (500 gram) box will make dinner for 4, and enough for lunch the next day. Next, stir in the goodies. Just dump everything in and give it a twirl. Essential additions are four: cheese, a binder that serves as the sauce, eggs, and tomatoes.The cheese can be whatever you like: cheddar, swiss, parmesan, Monterey jack, etc. If you have dribs and drabs and can mix it up, even better. Save some out for the topping.
To bind it together, I use creme fraîche or sour cream. At least a small container, more if you like. For one box of pasta, I add 2 or 3 beaten eggs. Add a regular-size can of diced tomatoes with their juice, and if you like more tomatoes, add another can, drained (fresh will work too, of course).
Now get creative with vegetables and seasonings. Sauté up a mess of veggies, and add meat or not. (I add meat only for my husband’s benefit, and I find that one small Italian sausage, chopped and thrown in the pan with the veggies, adds a lot of flavor). Sauté together any or all of the following: onions or shallots, celery, garlic, zucchini, summer squash, peppers of any sort. You can also add any leftover steamed veggies you have hanging around: broccoli, carrots, asparagus. Add everything to the mix.
Season it with salt and pepper and toss in some herbs de Provence, or dried basil and oregano. Or use fresh herbs: basil, parsley, cilantro, oregano all work. Throw in some hot sauce for heat if it pleases you.
Top it all with the remaining cheese plus some bread or cracker crumbs. Bake it for 30 minutes at 375. I cover it loosely for the first half, then uncover it, or you can cook it uncovered, until bubbly and melty.
It makes two pans, so have one for dinner, and throw one in the freezer. Or surprise a friend with dinner, be grateful for good food, friends, and health, and check Kindness and Gratitude off your list for the day!
In the COMMENTS: I was touched by all your kind responses to last week's post, sharing emotions and your own stories. So was Colton's family. His mother Audrey, writes on behalf of herself, her husband Bob, and their son Hunter: "Of course we are not alone in our loss. Thank you to all who shared love and condolences as well as other stories of tragic loss. These stories, oddly, now help, as we continue to mourn the loss of Colton while simultaneously celebrating his bright, charmed, and much too brief life."