Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Melody Makes Lazy Jane's Weekend Casserole

A no fuss alternative to a French classic!

Colder weather has officially set in, which means it’s time to break out all those comforting, stick to your ribs dishes. (I say as if I haven’t made this dish in the summer time before…) 

Lazy Jane’s Weekend Casserole is a family favorite perfected by my grandmother, and it’s something I always eat way too much of when she makes it for me. When I asked for the recipe and what the history behind the dish was, she told me something that I really wasn’t expecting: it actually has a loose connection to one of the most famous trends in cooking in the 1960’s! Got any ideas what it might be?

If you guessed it has something to do with Julia Child, you’re right! 

Julia Child co-authored Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was published in 1961, and was passionate about bringing classic French cuisine into American homes. Although she did try to Americanize the dishes to be more appealing to the general public, the book remains famous by making fine cuisine accessible to the average American chef thanks to its illustrations and clear instructions. 

She would become even more famous for her televised cooking show The French Chef. It premiered in 1963 and ran until 1973. It was one of the first cooking shows in the United States, and thanks to the relatively primitive technology available at the time, any mistakes Child made while cooking could not be cut from the final production. This made her appear very human and likeable, proving that even an expert might at times struggle in the kitchen. The show was also extremely popular, so it’s easy to imagine how people like Mrs. Ellison might watch it to get ideas for new dishes to try the same way we watch Food Network today. 

Another thing to keep in mind: as the show started before the feminist movements in the 1960s, this was one of the first programs that specifically addressed issues and concerns faced by housewives. Go Julia, right? 

Child is heavily featured at the National Museum of American History’s FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000. A first edition copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking is on display…

As is her kitchen! Child donated it to the Smithsonian in 2001, and it contains artifacts and equipment from the 1940’s to the time she donated it. It’s easily one of the coolest artifacts the museum has out on display, and definitely something you should check out next time you’re in town if you haven’t already.

So, where does Lazy Jane Casserole come in? 

Before my mom was born, my grandparents briefly moved to California in the early 60’s. While they were there, my grandma got the recipe I’m about to share with you guys from a vineyard and made it frequently even after they moved back to the East Coast. She still makes it a fair amount when she hosts Sunday dinners with my mom’s side of the family as it’s the perfect combination of an almost one dish meal that also can feed a crowd. What’s not to love about that? 

Lazy Jane Casserole came into my grandparents’ lives around the same time The French Chef was being broadcast into American households. Like most Americans in the 60’s, my grandparents were intrigued by some of the recipes and dishes she popularized, so one night when they went out to dinner, my grandmother ordered beef bourguignon, one of the dishes Child was most famous for. Imagine her surprise when she took a bite and realized it was basically just Lazy Jane Casserole! 

Now, the dishes are a little different, but the flavor profiles are extremely, extremely similar, and Lazy Jane Casserole is a lot easier to make, thus the title. If you’re ever looking for something that tastes like a five star French dish but you’ve got limited cooking ability, time, or energy, this is the dish for you! 

All you have to do is slice up a medium white onion, and add it to a casserole dish with a pound of stewing beef or chuck cut into two inch chunks, one can of Campbell’s beef consommé, 1/2 cup of burgundy wine, and salt and pepper to taste. My grandma also tends to add carrots, and I decided to add mushrooms to get some extra vegetables in me. In a separate bowl, combine 1/4 of a cup of dried bread crumbs with 1/4 of a cup of flour and then mix this in with the other ingredients.

Cover your casserole with aluminum foil to prevent the liquids from evaporating, and cook at 300 degrees for about three hours, or until the beef is tender. While you’re waiting for it to cook, you can prep the starch to be served with it. My grandma usually does buttered egg noodles, so that’s what I went with, but you can also serve it over mashed potatoes or crusty bread if you prefer.

This seriously smells like the best thing ever while it’s cooking. The wine is really the thing that does it. My whole apartment smelled amazing the entire time it was in the oven, which is admittedly a bit of a problem when you’re starving and trying to work on a research paper at the same time. 

After about three hours, you’ve got a thick, super tender and delicious casserole to enjoy.

Which looks great served over the noodles!

I really can’t gush enough about how much I love this dish. I do think my version wasn’t as good as my grandma’s, but I think that’s how most people feel when they try to recreate a family recipe. It’s very filling, and the beef gets super tender when cooked low and slow like this. I also had plenty of leftovers, which is always a great thing as a grad student. It’s easy to see how Melody’s mom might appreciate this dish too: enough to feed her big family, almost no stress, and tasty enough to seem a lot fancier than it actually is. 

Although I can’t promise I’m ever going to do a Julie and Julia style project cooking through the entirety of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I would like to try my hand at some of her recipes to get an idea of what was new and exciting for home cooks in the 1960’s. We tend to brush off the 60’s as a period filled with bad or even frightening food, but it was also a time when Americans were getting a more nuanced ideas about what constituted a good meal. I wonder what recipes might have interested Melody’s mom or Melody herself while watching Julia Child?

Maybe they’d wind up making the same discovery as my grandma: sometimes the fancy restaurant is making the same thing you are!


  1. There's nothing bad about brilliant cooking with thrifty ideals (which is how I categorize 60's cooking)!

    To add more veggies, might I suggest some frozen peas and/or corn AFTER it's cooked for a "fresh" bite too?

    I imagine the flavor profile of the consomme may have changed over the years too which might hinder your appreciation for your flavors over the memory flavor. They have tried to reduce sodium and other things in pre-packaged items. That hit us with our Nana's Broccoli soup recipe and chicken stock. I can't replicate her exact flavor any more :(

    1. I personally wouldn't recommend adding corn or peas to this, especially if you're trying to go for lazy beef bourguignon. The carrots are a sweet enough veggie to give some nice contrast to the earthier beef and wine flavors, and texture wise I'm not sure it would be a good combination.

      And I don't think that's the issue actually, as I've had my grandma's version as recently as this past summer! She makes it for me when I'm home because she knows it's a favorite. :) I think she's just got a better feel for how much salt/pepper/etc should be eye balled into the recipe, and her sauce is also a lot thicker than mine usually comes out. Sorry to hear about the broccoli soup though, that's a shame!

    2. I may have told you this before but my mother in law learned how to cook tomato gravy from her mother in law who didn't measure. So my MIL had her MIL throw her hand measure onto wax paper for months and she took the average of the measures to make a standardized recipe. :)