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What's Cooking? - Posted September 22, 2017 8:49 a.m.
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Photos by Shannon Richardson

Not Your Momma’s Casserole

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Put away your condensed cream of mushroom soup, everyone. Regardless of the ingredients – green beans, canned tuna, potato chips – the indulgent, oven-baked casserole has been a popular all-in-one American staple since the middle of the 20th century. For some, it’s a comfort food. For others, it’s a gooey, less-than-appetizing calorie bomb.

Either way, it’s time to reimagine the casserole. To do so, we turned to Jessica Higgins and her team at the artisanal Girasol Cafe & Bakery. Rather than offering her own suggestions, Higgins turned the spotlight to her employees Jeremy Grant, Kerri O’Neal, and Kalley Sadler – as well as “Mama” Girasol (Higgins’ mother, Jeana). “Each casserole represents the folks who submitted it,” Jessica says. Her only rule was that the ingredients needed to be fresh. Ingredients for these dishes include everything from quinoa and cauliflower to a unique avocado crema. “We try not to use your typical condensed soups or anything like that,” she says. Mission accomplished.

Recipes courtesy of Girasol Cafe & Bakery


Jeremy’s Cheesy Chicken & Quinoa Bake
1 ½ cups dry, uncooked quinoa
2 ¾ cups chicken stock or water
1 pound chicken, cooked and shredded or diced
8 ounces bell peppers and white onions
1 small tub diced green chiles, with juice (frozen preferred)
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon granulated garlic
¼ teaspoon oregano
½ pound Monterrey Jack cheese, grated

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Heat stock and add to 8- by 8-inch casserole pan over dry quinoa. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until quinoa has bloomed and is fluffy in appearance. While quinoa bakes caramelize peppers and onions; add green chiles and spices, stirring to get the flavor off pan. Add chicken and vegetables to finished quinoa; top with cheese and bake uncovered, until cheese bubbles. Garnish with lettuce, tomatoes and avocado.

Makes 4 to 6 servings


Kalley’s Curried Beef & Cauliflower Casserole
1 head cauliflower, grated medium size
1 pound ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
4 tablespoons dried fruits (Craisins, raisins, currants)
1 cup grated carrots
12 ounces spinach, wilted (fresh preferred)
14 ounces tomato sauce
¼-inch piece ginger, peeled and grated
1 to 2 tablespoons curry spice
Dash cumin
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste
8 cherry tomatoes, halved
2 ounces soft white cheese (optional: fresh mozzarella, Paneer)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. To form bottom layer, lightly saute grated cauliflower and place in casserole dish with sprinkle of salt and pepper. Saute onion and add ground beef to brown. Drain. Add carrots, wilted spinach, dried fruits, tomato sauce and spices; stir to evenly distribute flavors and vegetables. Place beef topping over cauliflower; top with halved tomatoes and cheese, if desired. Bake 20 to 30 minutes, until tomatoes are roasted and casserole is heated through.

Makes 6 to 8 servings


Kerri’s Vegan Sweet Potato & Quinoa Casserole
2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled, diced and roasted
1 cup dry, uncooked quinoa
Half of small (7- ounce) can chipotle in adobo, pureed
1 ½ cups vegetable stock
1 can black beans or lentils, drained
1 can garbanzo beans, drained
½ teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon chile powder
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon honey
Pinch of salt and pepper
Canola oil
Vegan Cheese (Optional)
2 medium avocados
1 green onion
1 lime, squeezed
1 pomegranate

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Peel and dice sweet potatoes to 1-inch cubes. Toss in oil and roast 25 minutes, or until till tender. While roasting potatoes, cook quinoa in stock until fluffy and bloomed. Add pureed chipotle and adobo sauce, beans, spices and roasted sweet potatoes. The mixture should be a little wet. Transfer to casserole dish and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, until heated through. While baking prepare avocado crème. Puree avocados and green onion together with lime juice to make a thick creme; if it’s too thick add additional water till desired consistency. Garnish casserole with creme, cilantro and pomegranate arils. You may have more filling than fits into the pan. It makes a great burrito, as well.

Makes 6 servings


Mama Girasol’s Chicken, Mushroom & Zucchini Casserole
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cooked and torn into bite-size pieces
3 medium zucchinis
1 shallot, chopped fine
1 cup onion, chopped fine
1 cup celery, chopped fine
1 cup almond slices or slivers
1 pound crimini mushrooms, sliced
4 to 6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
2 cups heavy cream
½ to 1 teaspoon salt and pepper, depending on taste
½ teaspoon granulated garlic
2 to 3 cups cooked rice
2 cups bread crumbs mixed with melted butter (for crunchy top)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Slice zucchini lengthwise then into ¼-inch half-moons. Saute mushrooms in butter until beginning to brown. Add onions and celery and cook until very tender and moisture is out of pan. Add flour and cook slightly before adding cream, salt and pepper. Whisk with cream, making sure no lumps form, until sauce has gravy consistency. Add chicken, zucchini, cooked rice, and most of almonds. Place in 8- by 11-inch casserole dish, top with breadcrumb mixture and a few more almonds. Bake, covered, 25 minutes then uncover until golden brown and bubbly.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Meet the Cook: Jessica Higgins of Girasol Cafe & Bakery

When your mom regularly wins amateur chili competitions and state fair prizes for her salsa, you tend to know your way around a recipe or two. That’s the environment in which Jessica Higgins was raised. “I’ve cooked all my life,” Jessica says. “My grammy was a cook, my mother was a darn good cook, and I grew up in the kitchen with them.”

A graduate of New Mexico State University’s School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management, Higgins immersed herself in a corporate hospitality career. “I’ve been in kitchens ever since. I never went to the other [hotel] side,” she says, laughing. She worked for Aramark and Sodexho Marriott, an international food services company headquartered in France, before taking a position with Flying Star Cafe, a multi-location Albuquerque chain known for its artisanal baking. “I’ve worked with chefs from all over the world,” says Higgins. “I’ve hosted chefs from Spain and worked with them in the kitchens.” Her most recent kitchen environment included experts from Holland, France, and San Francisco. “I met a lot of interesting characters.”

After Jessica’s father, Cliff Higgins, died in 2013, she departed Albuquerque to join her mother, Jeana Higgins, in Amarillo. “I was looking for something to do,” she says, when an opportunity presented itself in the former location of Black Forest Bakery, tucked behind the Toot’n Totum at Holyoke and Coulter. Jessica and Jeana combined resources to open Girasol Café and Bakery in early 2016. Jessica describes the business as “a little gleam in my eye for so long” that finally became a reality. Girasol is Spanish for “sunflower” and is a word that reminds Jessica of her father.

Today, both Jeana and Jessica operate the artisan bakery, serving fresh, creative fare to a dedicated lunch clientele. Popular dishes include the turkey pot pie and the duo’s turkey-avocado-swiss sandwich, served on scratch-baked whole-wheat bread. “People come in all the time and ask ‘Do you make this or that? Do you make it from scratch?’” Jessica’s answer, of course, is yes. Everything at Girasol is made from scratch. “I think there’s a standard in this town where people are expecting mixes or powders. But everything we touch here is so labor-intensive because it is all from scratch. All real ingredients.”

That includes the casseroles she and her staff provided for this issue. With a number of home cooks relying often on the easy dish and others avoiding it altogether – perhaps with bad memories of Grandma’s tuna mush – Higgins places herself in the casserole middle ground. “If you have a big family, casseroles are certainly the easiest to go around with,” she says. Her only rule is that they must be simple to prepare. “The best kinds of casseroles in my world are a one-pot thing.”

With fall underway and the holidays approaching, Higgins is gearing up for a hectic baking season. “If last year was any indicator, we know we’re going to get pretty busy,” she says. “For holiday time, pies and special orders are already picking up.” In other words, place those orders now.

by Jason Boyett

Jason has written more than a dozen books and is the host and creator of “Hey Amarillo”, a local interview podcast. Visit heyamarillo.com and jasonboyett.com.
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