Cheap Eats - Casseroles: Freezer-to-table takeout

Dinner on the go in Morningside

Atlanta is swarming with farm-to-table restaurants extolling the virtues of their heirloom radishes and wild dandelion greens, picked mere minutes ago just down the street. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But sometimes it's nice to come across a place that embraces the impervious cold of the freezer, the rugged durability of aluminum foil: the humble casserole. Casseroles, tucked out of sight off Lanier Boulevard behind Rosebud, is a place that at once seems uncommonly retro and thoroughly contemporary, offering house-made frozen casseroles to-go that aim to dispel any bad memories you may have of the casserole as a bland, processed amalgam of 20th-century American ingenuity.

Co-owners Hunter Hanger and Betsy McKay have created a cute little hideaway of a Southern take-out shop: the walls are lined with a museum-worthy display of casserole dishes, a few baskets of fresh produce stand by the door, and some playful paintings of kitchen utensils adorn the walls. The menu is built to please folks looking to have a home-cooked meal without all the work, or those in need of a feel-good gift for a gathering or a friend in need. Most dishes come in three sizes — small will feed two to four people, large can feed around 10. The prices, mostly in the $10-$15 range for small casseroles, will seem reasonable if you compare them to restaurants of a similar caliber, or a bit pricey if you compare them to home cooking.

The offerings at Casseroles range from the classic (chicken divan) to the unexpected (Brussels sprout and fennel bread pudding), with a few brunch items and desserts rounding out the list. One dish in particular stands out for both its bravado and its taste — Mrs. Hayes' lemon Jell-o and spinach salad. It may sound strange to modern ears, scary even, but it is a wonderful update on a classic of American cuisine. Apparently, Jell-o, spinach, cottage cheese and celery are made to go together, and they make for a vibrant and refreshing dish that's especially welcome on a warm summer day. Really. No, really.

Some of the dishes, as one might guess by the name, are a bit on the heavy side, but Casseroles does a nice job of using fresh herbs for flavor and keeping the heavy factor to a minimum. Macaroni and five cheeses, for example, manages to capture the flavor of those cheeses (ricotta and mozzarella most prominently) without being bogged down in a creamy sauce, and the inclusion of a bit of basil and tomato brightens it up. Likewise, the stars of the Brussels sprout and fennel bread pudding are the sprouts themselves, cooked before going into the tray so that they reach a texture that perfectly balances tender and firm. This is comfort food done right.

The tuna noodle casserole hews closer to the traditional casserole formula, and is frankly a bit boring compared to other items; the flavors are too reminiscent of a "Brady Bunch" rerun. But then along comes the vegetable biryani, a simple Indian rice and vegetable dish topped with the crunch of cashews and accompanied by addictively spicy fruit chutney, erasing any thoughts that Casseroles exists in a 1950s time warp. Actually, in an effort to shake off the negatives of old-school, can-of-soup-based concoctions, Casseroles sometimes errs on the side of low sodium for many of its dishes. Keeping a shaker of salt at the table is advised.

Casseroles has most of its items frozen and ready for pickup at any time, but if you give advance notice, the staff is happy to bring things to refrigerator temperature for quicker cooking, or even to have it hot and ready to go when you arrive. But what fun is that? Put your freezer to work, then kick back and enjoy a "Brady Bunch" marathon while your casserole goes from frozen to the table.

Casseroles range from $10-$53 and serve two to 10 people.

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