Mexi-Casserole is a quick and dirty weeknight casserole with Mexican-American flavors and a flaky biscuit crust. In many ways it fits the archetype of post-war convenience food: ground meat, mixed canned goods, and a Bisquick topping. If you can brown hamburger you can make Mexi-Casserole. At the center of the dish is a packet of pre-made taco seasoning, a flavoring I grew up on and thought I had outgrown until recently.
I have a James Beard award winning chef to thank for reintroducing me to pre-packaged taco seasoning. Gabriel Rucker, head chef at Portland restaurant Le Pigeon, has a brilliant recipe for pork confit tacos in his restaurant’s eponymous cookbook. Pork shoulder, slow cooked in oil, then shredded and tossed with McCormick’s taco seasoning. Fry it to a crisp and put it in tacos – elegant with a working class flair. Now I’m sure that with a little bit of effort I could mix up my own taco seasoning at home. There’s not much to it besides spices and a little bit of starch to thicken things up, and I’m sure I can get my hands on better quality stuff than the giant vats of stale spice in Lawry’s or McCormick factory. But that’s sort of missing the point. The pre-packaged stuff tastes like every single homemade taco made for an entire generation. There’s not a lot of difference between El Paso or Lawry’s or McCormick’s or even the Trader Joe’s store brand. They’ve got a muted sameness that I’d probably call bland if it didn’t conjure up memories of my misspent youth. And if it’s good enough for Gabe Rucker it’s good enough for me.
I should also take a moment to shout the praises of Bisquick, another vestige of my childhood. In the last few decades Bisquick has been eclipsed by Krusteaz and upstart Kodiak Cakes, but in our house Bisquick pancakes were the go to weekend breakfast mix. This is, perhaps, because it was one of the few things that my mom knew how to cook, along with Bisquick drop biscuits and the occasional Bisquick cream puffs. (The cream puffs had been a not-so-occasional treat for my mother growing up, apparently part of a daily afternoon ritual with her high school best friend.) Over the years I’ve learned to make my own or do without, but for a throwback casserole there’s a certain Bisquick tang that sort of ties the whole dish together.
And then the canned tomato soup sort of ties everything together, the capstone for not-anywhere-near-traditional Mexican food. We probably haven’t had tomato soup in the house on the regular for over a decade, but I grew up on the stuff. A bowl of straight soup with crackers or grilled cheese is still a guilty treat, but as an ingredient it leaves a lot to be desired. If I had it to do over I’d probably add a can of Ro-tel instead.
But in order to be true to the original I kept the tomato soup, along with the pre-packaged taco seasoning and the Bisquick. I changed up the meat a little bit, rounding up from a scant pound and a half of ground beef to two pounds of a pork/beef blend. I prefer this mixture for tacos and, by extension, a taco-based casserole; the lean pork seems to cut the greasiness of the ground beef without sacrificing richness. The recipe also seemed a little stingy with the cheese, so I opted for sharp cheddar and used a heavier hand. Mexi-Casserole isn’t quite a meal in itself, but between the biscuit topping and the beans in the casserole a traditional “rice and beans” side seemed redundant. I chose instead to serve it with a simple lettuce-and-tomato salad – essentially taco toppings in salad form. I also had sour cream and taco sauce on hand, along with some additional shredded cheese. For a potluck I can envision serving this up with shredded lettuce and chopped tomato scattered over top of the crust, casserole style.
It ain’t fine dining but it’s a hearty throwback to the flavors I grew up with. My palate has certainly evolved beyond stale spices and lumpy canned soup, but nostalgia is a currency all its own. Enjoy!
For the filling:
- 1 lb 80/20 ground beef
- 1 lb ground pork
- 1 oz pre-packaged taco seasoning (reserve 1 tsp for the topping)
- 1 10.75 oz can condensed tomato soup
- 1 - 2 15 oz cans seasoned chili beans
For the topping:
- Preheat oven to 400º F.
- In a large oven-safe Dutch oven brown meat and drain excess fat. Stir in taco seasoning mix, making sure to reserve 1 tsp for the topping.
- Stir in canned soup and beans. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, while you prepare the topping.
- Mix all ingredients for the topping to form a thick batter.
- Remove the meat mixture from the heat and spoon the topping over top. It may resemble dumplings - there will not be enough to form a continuous crust.
- Bake uncovered for about 20 minutes until the topping is golden brown and cooked through. Serve immediately.