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Tuna, Pesto and Veggie Casserole is a modern update to typical tuna hotdish. It is one of the recipes featured in a new cookbook by Duluth author Beatrice Ojakangas. Photo by Sue Doeden

Hotdish revival: It's time to rethink the casserole

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Casseroles are making a comeback. That's what cookbook author Beatrice Ojakangas claims in her newest book, "The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever." When they are made the way Beatrice prepares them, I believe it.

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I must admit that when I first heard of the book, I wondered why we needed another publication devoted to casseroles lined up on bookstore shelves. After all, I have a thick mass of recipe cards packed into the Casseroles category of my recipe file box. I can't remember when I last checked it.

When I think casserole, my head fills with images of gloppy mixtures of ground beef or bits of leftover meat from the refrigerator and canned soups, lined up one after another at potluck dinners. Dark on top after sitting out on a buffet table and often loaded with fat and sodium, casseroles are something I've been inclined to steer away from.

After trying a few recipes from the collection of 500 casseroles in Ojakangas' new cookbook, I've experienced an attitude adjustment. It began with one of the casserole appetizers that combines fresh baby spinach with Parmesan and low-fat mayonnaise and sour cream. Once baked, it was ready to slather onto slices of crunchy French bread. This was a preview of what I was to discover throughout "The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever." Ojakangas, who lives in Duluth, Minn., spruces up the traditional, stereotypical casseroles many Midwesterners know as hotdish, with fresh ingredients and often suggests using low-fat dairy products.

I also prepared a chicken casserole from the book with seasoned boneless, skinless chicken breasts baked on a bed of wild rice, mixed vegetables and golden raisins. This is another example of an old, familiar dish that Ojakangas makes over with a fresh, new, more healthful look.

Tuna, Pesto and Veggie Casserole is just right for those of us who have recently loosened our belts a bit as we've eaten our way through the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. Even if your jeans still fit just right after the holiday eating frenzy, you'll appreciate the bright and modern update Ojakangas gives to that plain-old conventional tuna hotdish we all remember well.

A mixture of low-fat sour cream, skim milk and basil pesto becomes a light, tasty sauce that moistens a can of water-packed tuna, cooked egg noodles and frozen vegetables. Not even one can of soup appears in the list of ingredients, yet it still takes little time to prepare. I served the olives, chopped, on the side for diners to add as a garnish. I find not everyone appreciates the taste of olives as I do.

Ojakangas says that ingredients like brined olives and purchased pesto were not readily available in the past. Now we can incorporate a greater variety of flavor and texture with these easy-to-use purchased ingredients, as well as sun-dried tomatoes, flavored oils, fresh herbs and exotic mushrooms - all things that were once unavailable to us. You can listen to my visit with Beatrice Ojakangas at this newspaper's Web site.

"The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever" offers options for everything from appetizers and breakfasts, to dinner and desserts - all fresh, all flavorful. Tuna, Pesto, and Veggie Casserole will warm you up as it satisfies pangs of hunger and will help you through the holiday feeding withdrawal.

Tuna, Pesto and Veggie Casserole

1 package (8-ounce) medium egg noodles

1/2 cup low-fat sour cream

1/2 cup low-fat or skim milk

1/3 cup basil pesto

1 can (6 ounces) water-packed tuna, drained and flaked

1 package (10 ounces) frozen peas and carrots, thawed

1 cup roasted red bell peppers, diced

1/4 cup pitted black olives, halved

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook the noodles according to package directions and drain. Transfer to a 3-quart casserole coated with cooking spray.

Mix the sour cream, milk, and pesto in a small dish. Stir into the noodles and add the tuna, peas and carrots, bell peppers and olives; mix lightly. Top with the Parmesan cheese. Coat a sheet of aluminum foil with cooking spray and cover the dish loosely.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until thoroughly heated and bubbly around the edges. Serves 6.

Credit: Beatrice Ojakangas, The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever, Chronicle Books (2008)

Tips from the cook

--Basil pesto can be found in most grocery stores. I always head to the dairy case and buy the refrigerated basil pesto.

--Ojakangas suggests roasting your own red bell pepper and explains how to do it in her book. There's nothing like the flavor of fresh-roasted peppers. But, if you're pinched for time as I was, an 8-ounce jar of roasted red bell peppers purchased from the store will work just fine.

--I like to roast a pepper by placing it on a foil-lined baking sheet. Slide it onto the top rack of the oven and broil the pepper, turning it until it is charred (totally black) on all sides. Use tongs to transfer the charred pepper to a glass bowl. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let it steam for 10 minutes. The skin will peel off easily. Pull out the stem, remove any remaining seeds. Chop up the pepper.

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