A Cozy Chicken Casserole for a Wintery Day

This is so hot out of the oven that it's still bubbling! Lovely!

This is not one of those things that photographs well on a plate. Here it is fresh out of the oven…so hot that it’s still bubbling! Lovely.

Tomorrow marks the American Thanksgiving holiday celebration and the real beginning of the big holiday season. It seems like time—which has already flown this year—is speeding up incrementally each moment that passes. Yes, I’ll admit it, I’m feeling the pressure!

But this week I’m taking some time to give thanks and count the many blessings in my life. I give thanks for my supportive family (you know who you are) and friends who have helped us survive this rather traumatic year. Thanks for our home being repaired and secured, and the ability to stay warm and fed during the cold months ahead. And thanks to my loving husband for the 15 years of marriage we will celebrate this Thanksgiving Day!

Our young owl friend in the back yard.

Our young owl friend in the back yard.

As I sit here writing this post, I hear an owl just outside my window hooting and hunting as dusk falls. We have owls around here most of the year, awesome creatures—beautiful and yet terrifying if you’re the target of their dinner. A family of Red Tail hawks lives a few doors down from us and we see and hear them quite often, too.

And a couple of weeks ago my husband snapped this image of one of three pileated woodpeckers (Woody Woodpecker!) This one hung around in our back yard feeding on bugs in the pines for a while, and you can see the bug in its beak. Though they are loud birds, they are quite shy, so it was really a coupe for him to catch this one with a snap!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll of this rather natural and country living, right here in the deep heart of a metropolitan area. Blessed, I’m tellin’ ya!

I’m in the mood for a little comfort food at the moment to chase away the chilly rain, very high winds and wintery mix we’re having down south, so I made up this little casserole to fit that bill. Maybe this came about because I was thinking of the holiday foods ahead, because it definitely has the chicken and dressing kind of action going on here. But it was actually inspired by my Tarragon Pecan Chicken Salad which seems to be a favorite of Pinterest pinners. The texture of this casserole is wonderfully comforting—nutty, chewy, savory and a teensy bit creamy, with a tiny hit of sweet from the grapes and the tarragon. It ticks off all the boxes, without being a super creamy, fat laden casserole—which I like as well as anyone, but don’t need this time of year! It takes some effort and a few dishes, but it makes a lot and the taste is definitely worthwhile. It also reheats well in the microwave. You can run your cursor over, or click on any image below to read through the process, or to see a larger image slideshow.

To all of those who celebrate, have a blessed and Happy Thanksgiving and a Happy Hannukah as well. And I hope everyone has a happy, fun and safe weekend ahead.

Chicken, Wild Rice, Pecan and Roasted Grape Casserole
Makes about 8 servings

2 cups red seedless grapes, washed
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 bone-in and skin on chicken breasts, (about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 lbs. with bone)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
pinch of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cups long grain and wild rice blend, uncooked
1 teaspoon kosher salt
6 cups low sodium chicken stock, or homemade
1 cup finely diced celery (about 2 stalks)
1 cup peeled and finely diced shallot (about 4 medium shallots)
1/2 cup pecans, lightly toasted and chopped
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
1 Tablespoon flour
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup low fat milk
1/2 cup additional chicken stock (I use rendered juice from cooking the chicken breasts)
1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper plus more to taste
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon leaves
1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Lightly grease a large ovenproof casserole (I use enamelware) with olive oil and set aside. Heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Cover a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and lightly grease it with olive oil. Place the washed grapes on the cookie sheet and toss them in 1 teaspoon of olive oil to coat. Roast the grapes in the oven for 10-12 minutes, until they are shiny and plump. Remove and set aside to cool. Reduce the heat in the oven to 375 degrees F.

Lightly oil a glass dish that will comfortably fit the two chicken breasts and place them in it. Drizzle the 1 Tablespoon of olive oil over both breasts and sprinkle each with a tiny bit of kosher salt and black pepper. Bake the chicken in the oven for about 35 -45 minutes at 375 degrees F, until done and the juices run clear when pierced with a knife. Remove from the oven and cover with aluminum foil. Allow the chicken to rest for 10 minutes, then uncover and remove the chicken to a plate to cool, reserving any drippings in the pan. When the chicken is cool enough to touch, remove the meat from the bones and tear it into bite sized pieces with your hands, discarding the skin and bones. Set the meat aside.

While the chicken is baking, put the rice into a large, heavy saucepan and cover with the six cups chicken stock and 1 teaspoon of kosher salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer and cover. Cook until the rice is just al dente and almost all liquid has been absorbed, about 35 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand covered for about 5 minutes, then transfer to a very large mixing bowl.

In a large, non-stick skillet, melt the 1 Tablespoon of butter over medium heat, then add the chopped celery and shallots, a pinch of kosher salt and black pepper, and sauté until the shallot is becoming transparent, about 5 minutes. Add the flour and stir, cooking it for about a minute, then slowly add in the milk, then the sour cream, stirring until smooth. Add the drippings from the chicken (or the additional 1/2 cup stock if you prefer), 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper, and allow the sauce to cook for a minute or two until thickened slightly, stirring, then turn off the heat.

Slice the cooled, roasted grapes in half and add them to the rice in the large mixing bowl. Add the chopped toasted pecans, the chicken and the sauce and stir to combine well. Add the tarragon and 1/2 cup of cheese to the mixture and stir to combine. Taste for seasoning and adjust, if needed, by adding more kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Spoon the chicken and rice mixture into the large prepared casserole dish, smoothing the top, and sprinkle the top with the remaining 2 Tablespoons of cheese. Bake at 375 degrees F for 35-45 minutes until the mixture is bubbling and the cheese is golden brown. Remove from the oven and serve hot. Great with a salad or roasted green beans.


A Better Broccoli Rice Casserole

Although this makes a lot, the two of us managed to inhale it with no problem!

Although this makes a lot, the two of us managed to inhale it with no problem!

Well, “better” is a relative term…but this is a very delicious and perhaps better-for-you broccoli rice casserole than the canned soup-based one we grew up with, I think. And one that I believe would appeal to young and old alike.

First off, this one is chocked full of fresh broccoli (in season right now!) and is paired with sweet onion and brown rice bound together with a nutmeg-scented parmesan cream sauce. Add a little Black Forest Ham if you like, or leave it out if you don’t. And while I did use some butter in the sauce, I also used 1% low fat milk instead of cream, which worked just fine and enhanced the natural sweetness of the ingredients.

The resulting dish has a lovely nutty flavor from the brown rice, broccoli and roux-based Parmesan cream sauce combo, with a nice salty-sweet hit from the ham, if you use it. And trust me ham or no, it’s a filling and comforting meal in one pot…my favorite kind in the winter, or anytime!

Now here’s the trick. This was so tasty that I never got a good picture of it before we inhaled it for dinners this week! So with my apologies for the flash picture, and only one view, at least you can see how colorful it is.

Hand Update: I’m almost back to speed in the kitchen. After exams, x-rays and some prescription meds this week, the good news is that it’s just a small tear in the tendon of the hand, and should be much better by next week. The moral of this story: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

Broccoli and Brown Rice Casserole with Onions, Ham and Parmesan
Makes 6-8 generous servings

2 cups long grain brown rice
4 cups water
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt

2 lbs. fresh broccoli florets

4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large sweet onion, chopped (about 2 1/2 cups)
3 Tablespoons of flour
1 1/2 cups low fat milk
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, divided
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg, or to taste
2 cups cubed (1/4″) Black Forest Ham (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a medium sized pot with a lid, bring the rice and the 4 cups of water and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer and cover until the rice is just tender and has absorbed the water, about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and fluff the rice with a fork, set aside.

In another medium sized pot, bring some water to a boil and drop the broccoli into the water in batches, allowing each batch to cook for 3-4 minutes. Drain the broccoli in a colander and rinse it with cold water to stop the cooking. Pat dry with paper towels and set aside.

In a large deep sided skillet, heat the butter over medium low heat and add the onions. Cook the onions until they are tender and transparent, then add the flour and stir constantly, allowing the flour to cook and develop a light roux, about 4-5 minutes. Add in the milk while stirring constantly to incorporate the roux into the milk. Bring the mixture just back to a simmer, allowing it to thicken. Turn the heat off, then add 1/2 cup of the parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon of salt, the pepper and the nutmeg and stir well to combine. Add in the cooked rice, the broccoli florets and the ham (if using) to the prepared parmesan cream sauce, and stir well to incorporate. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding a pinch more salt, pepper and nutmeg, if needed. Pour the mixture into a large casserole dish that has been buttered, and sprinkle the remaining parmesan cheese evenly over the top. Place it in a 350 degree F oven and bake until it is heated through and bubbling, and the top is very lightly browned, about 20-30 minutes. Serve. Keeps well in the fridge and reheats beautifully.