Though I lived most of my life in the Midwest, I didn't grow up on casseroles. However, my Illinois-born husband did. His childhood punctuated with quick ham bakes, easy cheesy pies, chicken rice supremes and taco casseroles more than made up for mine.
America's heartland can't lay claim to the technique of layering starch, protein and veg in a sturdy dish with sauce and cheese and baking it, though it's hard not to associate this vintage brand of comfort food with the Midwest. This is, after all, the land where dairy is king, where social circles are formed in church basements and over potluck dinners and where the main positive attribute people can ascribe to the endless, harsh winters is that they're "character-building."
The name "casserole" refers both to the finished dish and its cooking vessel; this one-potter's centuries-long history spans continents and age-old recipes from Lebanon's eggplant-and-chickpea maghmour to France's sausage-and-bean cassoulet. Casserole recipes started showing up in American cookbooks in the late 19th century, but the dish really gained steam during the Depression and World Wars as an affordable, fast and filling meal that stretched limited proteins and made use of produce that people canned at harvest time.
If you hail from the Upper Midwestern states of Minnesota or North Dakota, you may know casserole as hot dish (excuse me, hotdish), which is technically distinguishable by a canned creamy soup base, but — depending whom you ask — must also include a topper of crispy tater tots or crushed potato chips.
My husband's late mom Betsy was not from Minnesota, though she was notorious for incorporating canned creamy soup into her hot dishes — especially cream of mushroom to the dismay of her funghi-hating husband and son.
When Betsy died from ovarian cancer in 2009, my husband and I inherited her recipe collection — 60-odd years' worth of stained notecards bearing her loopy cursive alongside recipes clipped from magazines and Hunt's tomato cans — all crammed inside a couple of mismatched recipe boxes. I took comfort in pulling out her favorites — always desserts — so distinguished by their abundance of splatters, which tended to smear the ink in the most maddening places for those tasked with recreating them. Betsy was a skilled and enthusiastic baker who tackled all sorts of technically challenging pies, cookies and pastries. When it came to cooking, she prized convenience, speed and easy cleanup above most else, meaning many of her savory dishes leaned heavily on shortcuts: premade chicken kiev, baked chicken breast seasoned with Hidden Valley Ranch packets and casseroles combining several canned and frozen elements.
A few years ago, I cooked a dinner in Betsy's honor for some friends, headlined by taco casserole and chicken rice supreme. This being a proper potluck, I put each guest in charge of baking and bringing a different batch of her famous cookies.
The eight of us crowded around my little dining room table, heaping big spoonfuls of cheesy, baked nostalgia onto our plates and washing it down with Miller High Lifes. Everyone loved taco casserole, which is exactly what it sounds like — starting with sautéed "ground beaf (sic) and onions (if you wish)" and ending with a dousing of canned enchilada sauce and a blizzard of shredded cheddar. But the regally named chicken rice supreme — with its bubbling layers of wild rice, broccoli and precooked chicken bound in creamy, mustard-tinged sauce topped with cheese — was the real showstopper, a salve for a bitterly cold night.
I wondered what Betsy would say if she knew I'd replaced the canned cream of celery soup with fussy homemade bechamel and its unpleasant byproduct of extra dirty pans. Mainly, I think she would've delighted in knowing that we were all crammed together, sharing a cozy meal while we laughed ourselves hoarse, ending with far too many of her glorious cookies.
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A few notes on the recipe
The changes I made to this superb hotdish came mainly in a panic, because I couldn't find seasoned wild rice or cream of celery soup at the grocery store and time was running menacingly short until my guests arrived. Instead, I used plain wild rice (which, incidentally, made this less salty) and made a quick stovetop bechamel with celery and shallots — which, again, helped control the salt. I also added gruyere to the finishing cheese layer mainly because there might be no tastier combination than gruyere and Dijon mustard.
Recipe: Chicken (or Turkey) Rice Supreme, Respectfully Updated
Adapted from Betsy Hardy Hennessy
- 3/4 cup wild rice
- Salt, as needed
- Olive oil, as needed
- 1 10-ounce sack frozen broccoli florets
- 2 Tbsp butter, plus more as needed
- 2 Tbsp flour
- 1 small stalk celery, small-diced
- 1 small shallot, small-diced
- Freshly ground pepper, as needed
- 1 1/4 cups whole milk (when I say whole milk, I mean it)
- 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
- 2 cups cubed rotisserie chicken or leftover turkey
- 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup freshly grated gruyere cheese
Cook the wild rice according to the package directions with a pinch of salt and about 1 tsp olive oil. When it's about 5 minutes from done, stir in the broccoli to warm it through. Fluff the rice with a fork and set aside.
Melt 2 Tbsps butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add the celery, shallot and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Sauté for 3 to 5 minutes, until the veggies soften and become translucent. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until it thickens into a paste and bubbles a bit, but don't let it brown — about 2 minutes.
In a separate small saucepan, warm the milk on low heat just until little bubbles begin to form at the edges; remove from the heat. Add the hot milk to the veggies and roux, whisking constantly as the sauce thickens. Bring it to a boil. Add salt and pepper to taste, lower the heat to medium low and cook, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes more. Kill the heat and stir in the cheddar, mayo and mustard, whisking thoroughly to combine.
Preheat the oven to 325F. In a butter-greased 9" by 13" baking dish, spread the reserved rice and broccoli mixture into an even layer. Distribute the chicken or turkey meat evenly over the top, then spoon the bechamel-mayo mixture over everything, spreading it into an even layer to the very edges. Sprinkle the parm and gruyere over the top of everything and add a few grinds of black pepper.
Bake for 45 minutes, or until hot all the way through and bubbling at the edges. Let cool for 10 minutes and serve. This goes great with a bright, lemony salad and a cold glass of Chenin Blanc or a bottle of Miller High Life.
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