A week or so ago, when I was reading Gladys Taber’s Harvest at Stillmeadow, I came across one of her original recipes for a chicken casserole. She listed the layered ingredients: Cooked chicken; carrots or peas; rice or potatoes; tomatoes; cheese; and bread crumbs. So far, so good. But then came the dreaded ingredient—canned cream of mushroom soup.
I know. Gladys was a cook of her time, just as we are cooks in our own time, but canned cream of mushroom soup is a step back that I cannot take. My own mother was a fan of this canned soup, and although she was a a terrific baker, she used cream of mushroom soup with an alarming frequency in her main meals. Even as a child, I didn’t like it, and my heart would sink when I learned that dinner was another one of my mother’s concoctions, which all revolved around the canned cream of mushroom soup and usually had noodles, some kind of protein, and canned vegetables.
The worst was ground beef, macaroni, Veg-all, and cream of mushroom soup. I can still picture it. I can still remember the taste. And it turned me off casseroles for a long, long time.
Lately, though, I have reconsidered my anti-casserole stance. If they are made with real ingredients, say, a white sauce or a homemade gravy rather than a canned soup, then casseroles can be pretty tasty. They are also economical, using up the last bits of cooked chicken, carrots, and potatoes from a previous meal.
So with Gladys’s recipe, I began to think about substitutions for the cream of mushroom soup. I could make a garlic and parsley white sauce, which is tasty over fish as well as a good binder for casseroles. Or, I could get clever and make a gravy from a stock simmered in a slow-cooker, leftover from a meal featuring chicken, potatoes, and carrots. If I were really clever, then I could cook extra vegetables and have pretty much everything I needed for the casserole the next day.
And that is exactly what I did. On one day, I cut up plenty of Farmer Kev’s carrots and potatoes, and filled the bottom of the slow-cooker, taking care to leave enough room for the little chicken, which weighed about four pounds. (This was a by-guess-and-by-golly type of thing. I just peeled and chopped potatoes and carrots until I had a goodly amount.) I added a cup of warm water and sprinkled salt, pepper, dried thyme, and sage over the vegetables. The chicken went on top, and I sprinkled more salt, pepper, thyme, and sage over it. I also minced a large clove of garlic and sprinkled that over the chicken. (Onion could be substituted for the garlic.) On went the cover, and voilà, in five hours cooked on high, we had a lovely chicken dinner.
When it comes to vegetables cooked with chicken, Clif shows little restraint, and I knew that if I wanted enough potatoes and carrots for the following night, then I would have to Employ a Strategy. This I did, with biscuits, thus ensuring there would be plenty of vegetables for the casserole. After we were done eating, I poured the stock into a bowl and tucked it in the refrigerator. I also did this, of course, with the leftover chicken and vegetables.
The next day, this casserole went together pretty darned fast. No, making a gravy from stock is not as quick as opening a can of cream of mushroom soup, but it doesn’t take that long, and it sure tastes better. I skimmed the chicken fat from the top. (Sorry schmaltz lovers, but I prefer butter. Must be the Franco in me.) In a saucepan, I heated the stock and strained it. In another saucepan, I melted four tablespoons of butter and whisked in four tablespoons of flour. I poured in the hot stock, whisked and stirred, and within a few minutes, I had a delicious gravy for the casserole.
A word about the tomato in this casserole. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I wanted one or not, but as I had a beautiful ripe tomato, courtesy of Farmer Kev, I decided to add it. I’m glad I did. The acidic tomato added a pleasant tang to the smooth chicken, vegetables, and gravy mixture. When the fresh tomatoes have gone by and I make this casserole again, I will add a small can of diced tomatoes, drained.
Chicken Casserole with Homemade Gravy
Adapted from a recipe by Gladys Taber
- 2 cups of leftover chicken, cut in chunks
- 1(1/2) cups of leftover potatoes and carrots, cut in small chunks
- 1 large tomato, cut in chunks.
- 1 cup of grated cheese
- 2 slices of bread, torn into small bits for bread crumbs
- 2 cups of chicken stock—add milk if there isn’t quite enough
- 4 tablespoons of butter
- 4 tablespoons of flour
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Layer the chicken on the bottom of a large casserole dish.
- Put the potatoes and carrots on top of the chicken.
- Add the tomatoes.
- Sprinkle with the grated cheese.
- Pour the gravy onto the casserole.
- Top with bread crumbs.
- Bake for 45 minutes or until the casserole is bubbling hot.
- Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Directions for the gravy
- Skim off chicken fat from the chicken stock reserved from the slow-cooker meal you made a night or two before. (If shmaltz is your thing, then save it for the roux. If not, discard it.)
- Heat the stock in a large saucepan.
- Strain it into a bowl and then measure to be sure you have 2 cups. Add a little milk if you don’t. Return the stock to the saucepan and heat until very hot. (The hot stock will make the gravy come together more quickly.)
- In another large saucepan, melt 4 tablespoons of butter (or a combination of butter and chicken fat).
- Whisk in four tablespoons of flour and stir until the mixture bubbles a little.
- Pour the hot stock into the roux. Whisk and stir until thickened. The gravy will be done when it leaves a line on the back of a spoon.