A pound or two of ground beef is one of the most economical starting points for a comforting meal, especially when it's combined with other easy-to-like ingredients in the form of a casserole. The beef's flavor is savory but not overly assertive, providing a supportive base for a range of sauces, starches and vegetables. Most of the basic casseroles follow a few basic patterns, leaving lots of room for you to personalize the end result to the occasion or your family's taste.
Before you assemble your casserole, the beef needs a bit of preliminary preparation. In a large skillet or Dutch oven, brown the beef lightly until its fat renders out. Stir the beef to break it down into "crumbles"; then transfer the meat to a colander and rinse it briefly under warm tap water to wash away any remaining fat. Wipe out your pan; then saute onions and garlic gently in a spoonful of oil until they're translucent and aromatic. Add back the beef, season it with salt and pepper, and stir it until well mixed. You can make the beef to this point and freeze it, if you wish, to speed future casseroles. Alternatively, make a batch of your favorite meatballs and freeze those as a casserole option.
Several of the easiest casseroles to assemble require just browned beef, some tomato sauce, and a pot of leftover or freshly cooked pasta. Add garlic and Italian herbs until you're happy with the flavor of the sauce; then layer the ingredients into your baking dish or stir them all together into a rich, saucy blend. Long noodles such as spaghetti, short macaroni or rotini or fun shapes such as fafalle and shells are all appropriate. You can even make "sloppy lasagna" by stirring the fat noodles into your sauce and cheese, rather than carefully building layers. Sprinkle the top with a mixture of your favorite cheeses, and heat until the casserole's golden and bubbly on top.
A whole other class of casseroles consists of variations on the theme of a pot pie, in which you moisten your ground beef and vegetables with rich, beefy gravy or a creamy sauce. Shepherd's pie is one obvious example of the style, a dish in which you top the meat and vegetables with a layer of mashed potatoes. Other versions require you to spread the meat and vegetables over a layer of potatoes or noodles; then top the finished casserole with breadcrumbs or cheese. If your time is limited, and you don't have cooked pasta or potatoes on hand; instead, top the casserole with rolls from a refrigerated tube or a quick batch of biscuit dough.
Good ol' macaroni and cheese is one of the most reliably kid-friendly casseroles, which makes it equally appropriate for weeknight dinners or all-ages potlucks. Adding your browned beef to that classic combination makes it a more substantial and protein-rich meal. If your kids are vegetable-averse, the flavorful orange sauce also provides opportunity to sneak in some added nutrition. For example, pureed carrots or winter squash are easily concealed in the casserole, adding flavor and vitamins while simultaneously deepening the sauce's color. Top the entire mixture with toasted breadcrumbs or more cheese -- or both -- and bake it until it's golden.