My friend Kelly moved from Seattle to Pasadena last weekend. I knew it was coming, of course, but I didn’t anticipate how much it would affect me. She showed up at our house last Friday, when we hosted a party for my husband’s graduate students, and handed me our house key. “We probably won’t need this anymore,” she said. Or something like that. Her little half smile.
We had a living room full of people. I took the key into my bedroom and burst into tears. More than anything, I was surprised—neither of us are big on goodbyes, and I assumed I’d give her a great big hug and trust I’d see her soon enough. No biggie. But all at once, in those few words, I conjured up this big crater in my life, a Kelly-shaped space where she used to fit so well. I imagined my dog, who has very few favorite people, pining after her, and started my own little moping session. No more midday Discovery Park walks. No more Battleship-style work sessions at the local coffee shop. No more, “Hey, I just tested some lamb. Want lunch?”
I met Kelly when our husbands were in graduate school together. The first time Kelly made me dinner, I think, was the time she made her mom’s taco casserole. Back then, we were still the hangers-on, the female counterparts to a relationship our now-husbands had already cultivated. You know how it is: the guys get along, so they figure the gals might, too. It doesn’t always work that way, but the more I hung out with Kelly, the more I liked being friends with her. Slowly, we started doing things together without the boys around. When she and her husband moved to Seattle a couple years ago for a post-doc, we were all thrilled.
But we knew it would be short-lived. Which is why, red and teary in front of all my husband’s colleagues, I was a little frustrated with myself. She’s not going away forever, silly, I thought. Much of her family still lives here. Somehow, in my own semi-private hallway crisis, it calmed me to think about the casserole. We’d come a long way since that night, maybe about 6 years ago now, and I figured that if I still remembered the first thing she made us—and Jim and I talk about it regularly, maybe once a month—she probably wouldn’t just up and disappear from my life altogether. A woman doesn’t make you a taco casserole unless she intends to stay in the picture, right?
It’s probably time to tell you about the dish itself. First, throw away any preconceptions you have about the word “casserole.” (Here are mine: Casseroles are for other families. They all start with a can of soup. They don’t taste good.)
Start with an empty pan. Layer it with corn tortillas, taco meat, cheese, maybe some salsa, and just enough sour cream to tip your nutritional barometer past the “unhealthy” mark. Then slide it into the oven, and say “bake at 350 degrees, until golden bubbly” with a Southern accent, the way Dolly Parton does in Steel Magnolias (only she’s talking about a dessert made out of canned fruit cocktail).
We loved it. I don’t think we put anything on it, really. It’s not just that you don’t need to adorn something like a taco casserole, it’s that it might even be wrong to garnish it. I often think of it when I cook dinner for people for the first time, because somehow, simply taking one single pan out of the oven, instead of juggling four of them and organizing the clean linens and getting out the good wine and turning on the right music, makes a house feel more like a home to me. A casserole is a sort of edible welcome mat, woven from a household’s history with the fibers of time, and care, and in most cases, calories. I clearly don’t make them enough. Kelly’s made me feel at home.
Earlier last week, my neighbor had come to me with a challenge. She’s cooking dinner for about 55 people in a couple weeks, for a Mexican-themed party. She needed an easy, tasty, make-ahead dish that would satisfy the stereotypical Mexican-American card without requiring any mid-meal work or attention. Ideally, she’d be able to make it a week ahead and freeze it. And ideally, it would stay hot for a long time.
There in the hallway, all streaky, it hit me that a slightly upscale version of Kelly’s taco casserole would fit the bill. The only problem? I’d mentioned the casserole to Kelly’s mom at her going away party, and her mom doesn’t remember it in the slightest. That’s the way it goes with these things, I suppose—one person’s legend is another person’s evanescence. Kelly didn’t seem to remember where the recipe came from, either, so I had no real starting point.
But pork. I had a gorgeous pork shoulder in the freezer. I thought of the neighbor. Fifty-five people. It needed to be easy, and she needed to both try it, to see if she liked it, and test it from frozen, to see how long it would take to reheat on the party day, so I needed two pans. I braised the pork, painfully simply, in two jars of store-bought salsa. I pulled it, and layered it into the pans with cheese, tortillas, sour cream, and an enchilada sauce made from combining the braising liquid, canned sauce, and canned tomatoes. (Okay, the truth here: In the middle of all this, I got a wicked case of food poisoning, let the pork sit in the fridge all cooked for 3 days, then asked our nanny, whose Texas roots qualify her as an almost professional pork puller, to shred the pork for me because when I started the project, I thought my stomach could handle it, but when I opened the pork, I realized I’d jumped the gun. Miraculously, I had a huge appetite for it when the casserole came out of the oven, and 5 days after the illness struck, it’s still the only meat I’ve been able to eat.)
It was perfect—browned and bubbling, moist and filling, interesting but kid-friendly, and irrepressibly homey. I scooped into it for lunch, and the neighbor came over to taste, and loved it. I had it again with a friend for dinner, and my sister stopped by unexpectedly, and there was enough for her, too. The last went to Graham, who shoved it into his mouth like a Neanderthal, then ceremoniously flung the leftovers onto the walls, windows, and curtains so a different neighbor would see that he’s a miniature taco casserole gladiator. For the record, this dish sticks to walls as well as it does to ribs.
The next time I see Kelly, possibly at my in-laws’ house in Maine this summer, possibly with other friends we don’t see often enough, I might make it again. I’ll drape the good carpets with plastic, when Graham’s eating, and tell stories about changing my mind, in the end, and making Dave and Kelly keep the house key after all, and about helping the neighbor make pulled pork enchilada casserole for 55, and I’ll probably forget that Kelly no longer lives in Seattle.
And for a short period, I’ll feel, deeply and completely, why some foods make people feel like they’re at home, no matter where they live.
(I’ll let you know how long to bake from frozen, in the comments section, as soon as my neighbor retests!)
Pulled Pork Enchilada Casserole (PDF)
Alter the spiciness of this homey, cheese-crusted casserole—really a lazy way of making enchiladas—by using a hotter salsa. I used Trader Joe’s Double Roasted Salsa and mild enchilada sauce, and it had only a touch of heat, which hit the mark for serving a big crowd. You can always fancy it up with chopped scallions, cilantro, and avocado, too.
TIME: 20 minutes active time
MAKES: Two 8”x8” casseroles, each serves 6
2 pounds boneless pork butt or shoulder
2 (12-ounce) jars salsa
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (14-ounce) can enchilada sauce
Vegetable oil spray
20 corn tortillas
1 cup sour cream
4 cups shredded Mexican-style cheese
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the pork (with strings, if applicable) in a large ovenproof pot with a lid (such as a Dutch oven), pour the salsa over the top, and bake for 3 hours. (Yes, that’s all.) Let cool to room temperature. Remove any strings.
Transfer all the salsa and liquid to a food processor, and puree with the diced tomatoes and enchilada sauce. Pull the pork into bite-sized shreds and set aside, removing any large pieces of fat.
Change the oven temperature to 350 degrees.
Spray two 8” square pans with the vegetable oil. Spread 1/2 cup sauce in the bottom of each pan. Tear 5 corn tortillas in half, and arrange them in a couple layers in one pan, turning some of them so the flat sides touch the edges of the pan, then repeat for the second pan. Add half the pork to each, then divide the sour cream between the two pans, spreading it right over the pork. Add 1 cup shredded cheese, then 1 cup of the sauce, to each pan. Add another layer of 5 halved tortillas to each, then divide the remaining sauce between the two pans, and top each with another cup of shredded cheese.
Bake the casseroles for 45 minutes, until the cheese is melted and browned. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.
You can also wrap casseroles first in foil, then in plastic, then freeze and reheat at 350 degrees in just the foil for 1 hour. Remove the foil and bake until browned.