Every few months, my family gets together with a Latin group of friends and their families for a potluck.
This winter it was our turn. As tradition goes, the host brings the main dishes to the table and the others bring the rest. I eagerly announced my plans to share Mexican casseroles, also called cazuelas, budines or pasteles. The Mexicans couldn’t hide their joy — “Pati! De veras? Budin Azteca? Cazuela de Tamal?!” — and quickly thought of other “very” Mexican sides to pair with them. The Argentines and Costa Ricans tried to understand what “Mexican casserole” meant and whether it was supposed to be any good. The Americans in the group (though they consider themselves Latin) were clearly not excited about it.
No doubt about it, casseroles have had their ups and downs in culinary history. Their weakest stand seems to have been in the United States, after being fashioned into “two-step-many-can” versions in the 1930s and ’40s. But think of all the bright stars in the casserole universe: French cocottes enveloped in mother sauces; British potpies encrusting fillings as wet as British weather; irresistible Italian lasagnas layered with pasta; Peruvian causas with seasoned meat encased in mashed potatoes; Greek spanakopitas with an extra-savory cheese-spinach mix covered in phyllo dough; Middle Eastern moussakas stacked with layers of eggplant; and the not-so-well- known, yet gloriously tasty Mexican cazuelas.