Casseroles have never really had much of a place in my culinary repertoire. It's a time thing mostly. I'd rather sear something off in a few minutes than stand around while it slowly bakes.
I've also never been much of a fan of dishes in which everything sort of just oozes together. Though I wasn't a picky eater as a child — and I never suffered from the foods-can't-touch syndrome — I am the sort of guy who likes to eat one food at a time, usually saving the best for last. Hey, we all have our little compulsions. That's mine.
But this doesn't mean I'm blind to the appeal of a casserole bubbling away in the oven. There are many solid reasons so many home cooks favor them. So I decided to challenge myself to come up with a casserole that I could get behind. In true casserole fashion, it needed to be richly satisfying, a true comfort food.
And to satisfy my inclination to save the best part of the meal for last, every part of the casserole needed to qualify as potentially the best.
What I came up with isn't the healthiest dinner I can imagine, but it was unbelievably delicious. And it is so worth it. I ended up with a three-layer casserole that begins with a bed of thinly sliced and roasted sweet potatoes. The potatoes then are topped with a tangy-sweet mess of pulled pork. The final layer is a three-cheese macaroni and cheese with Parmesan-breadcrumb topping.
Like I said, every part of this dish needed to be the best. You will not regret making this.
MAC AND CHEESE PULLED PORK CASSEROLE
Start to finish: 1 1/2 hours (30 minutes active)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
2 medium sweet potatoes
2 pounds pork tenderloin, cut into 2-inch chunks
13 1/2-ounce bottle barbecue sauce
1 to 2 tablespoons cider vinegar, to taste
8 ounces elbow pasta
1/4 cup creme fraiche
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese
Hot sauce, to taste
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted
Heat the oven to 425 F. Coat a 9-inch springform baking pan with cooking spray.
In a small bowl, mix together the paprika, cumin, chili powder and 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.
Slice the sweet potatoes as thinly as possible. A mandoline or food processor is best, but careful slicing with a knife works, too. Arrange a single layer of the slices in the prepared pan. Sprinkle with a bit of the spice blend, then spritz with cooking spray. Repeat with additional layers of sweet potatoes and seasonings until you have used all of the slices and seasoning mixture.
Bake for 15 minutes, or until tender and lightly browned at the edges. Remove the pan from the oven and set aside.
Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan of water to a simmer. Add the pork and cook for 1 hour. Remove the pork from pan. Using 2 forks, tear and shred the pork into bite-sized pieces. Discard the water from the pan, then return the pork to it. Add the barbecue sauce and vinegar, then mix well. Set aside.
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente according to package directions. Reserve 1/4 cup of the cooking water, then drain the pasta and return to the saucepan. Return the pasta to medium heat and add the creme fraiche, cheddar and Gruyere. Stir until melted, then add a splash of hot sauce. Season with salt and pepper.
Spread the pulled pork in an even layer over the roasted sweet potatoes. Spread the mac and cheese over the pork.
In a small bowl, mix together the Parmesan, panko and butter. Sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture evenly over the mac and cheese, then bake for 15 minutes, or until the breadcrumbs are lightly toasted and the center of the casserole is hot.
Nutrition information per serving: 520 calories; 160 calories from fat (31 percent of total calories); 18 g fat (10 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 115 mg cholesterol; 52 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 15 g sugar; 36 g protein; 1,190 mg sodium.
J.M. Hirsch is the food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs at http://www.LunchBoxBlues.com and tweets at http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch