Eric Akis: Shipwreck with a happy ending

Ground-meat-based casserole with just about everything but the kitchen sink will feed a crew on land or at sea

Eric Akis

Times Colonist readers send me all sorts of cooking-related queries. Some are easy to answer, such as where to find a particular food product. Others are more involved and it takes me longer to respond, because I’ll want to research the subject if I’m not entirely sure of the answer.

The latter was the case when a reader named Denis emailed to ask if I had a good recipe for shipwreck. He said he used to enjoy it at a deli in Chemainus, but it closed.

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The dish sounded familiar and old-fashioned. With a name like shipwreck, my first thought was that it must contain seafood — something a stranded seafarer might have made by combining what he saved from the ship’s galley with what he could catch from the sea.

Turns out, as some of you might already know, I was completely off course. I thought for sure that with a few hundred cookbooks in my collection, I would find a recipe for shipwreck that would point me in the right direction, but I did not.

So I turned to the internet and soon found a pot full of recipes. I discovered that the dish could have also been called what-do-I-have-in-my-kitchen casserole, since a hodgepodge of ingredients can be used to make it, with ground beef, not seafood, usually the anchor tenant.

I could not find any information as to who made the first shipwreck and when. But it does appear to be one of the many ground-meat-based casseroles that were cooked in the 1940s, during and after the war years. It was a time when folks made good use of whatever foods they had on hand and found ways to make a modest amount of meat feed a whole family.

That desire to use up what one had on hand and the many years that have passed since the first dish of shipwreck was served must explain why I could not find two recipes for it that were exactly the same.

That said, most contained ground beef, sliced or diced potatoes and onions, canned tomato soup, stewed tomatoes or tomato sauce, rice — sometimes cooked first, sometimes not — and beans, usually either canned kidney beans or canned pork and beans.

Vegetables such as sliced celery, bell peppers, carrots and frozen or canned green beans and peas were also often included, but not always.

In most recipes, the ingredients were layered in a casserole and baked, as in another dish I found called seven-layer dinner.

In other recipes, they were simply all mixed together and cooked on the stovetop, as a stew might be. More modern versions of shipwreck can also be cooked in a slow cooker.

For my recipe, which I hope Denis enjoys, I decided to make the layered and baked version of shipwreck, using elements that most appealed from the many recipes I found.

When it’s cooked, you end up with a hearty, filling one-pan meal that will keep you from feeling hungry for a long while, something that would be handy if you had been shipwrecked.

Shipwreck Casserole

This is my version of this hearty dish, which layers together cooked ground beef, kidney beans, rice and vegetables. I like to serve it with a green salad. Any leftover shipwreck will freeze well. I would do it in single-serving portions that could be thawed and reheated in the microwave.

Preparation time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: About 105 to 110 minutes

Makes: Eight servings

1 lb (454 grams) lean ground beef

2 large (about 325 gram each) baking potatoes

1 medium to large yellow or white onion, halved and thinly sliced

1 (680 mL) can tomato sauce

1 cup beef stock

2 Tbsp tomato paste (see Note)

1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp chili powder

1 large garlic clove, minced

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/4 cup uncooked long-grain white rice

1/2 cup thinly sliced celery

1/2 cup thinly sliced carrot

1 (14 oz./398 mL) can red kidney beans, drained, rinsed and drained again

2 green onions, thinly sliced

Place the beef in a medium pot and set over medium, medium-high heat. Cook and stir beef until crumbly and cooked through. Remove from the heat, drain any liquid/ rendered fat from the beef, then set pot aside until needed.

Peel the potatoes, then thinly slice each one, widthwise (don’t cut them thickly or they’ll take forever to cook). Set potatoes in a bowl, rinse with cold water, then keep submerged in water until needed.

Place the tomato sauce and paste, stock, Worcestershire, oregano, chili powder and garlic in a second bowl, season with salt and pepper, and mix to combine.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spread the sliced onions in the bottom of a deep, 13-by-nine-inch casserole. Drain the potato slices well, then dry on a kitchen towel or with paper towel.

Layer the potatoes on top of the onions, and season them with salt and pepper. Pour and spread half the tomato-sauce mixture (11Ú2 cups) over the potatoes and onions. Now sprinkle on the rice.

Mix the remaining tomato sauce mixture and kidney beans into the cooked ground beef. Spoon and spread the beef mixture over the potatoes. Top beef mixture with the celery and carrots.

Cover the casserole tightly with aluminum foil. Bake in the middle of the oven 95 to 100 minutes, or until potatoes are very tender and can easily be pierced through when poked with the tip of a paring knife.

Let casserole rest a few minutes, sprinkle with green onions, then serve.

Note: For a recipe such as this that calls for a small amount of tomato paste, I buy a resealable tube of it. They are sold at most supermarkets. Once you’ve squeezed out what you need, seal it up and keep it refrigerated until it’s needed again. It will keep quite a while.

Eric’s options: For added richness, when the casserole has baked and potatoes are tender, you could uncover it and sprinkle it with grated cheddar cheese, to taste. Then bake the casserole a few minutes more, uncovered, or until cheese is melted.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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