After All This Time, All I Have To Offer Is Casserole

It was never my intention to take a leave of absence from this space, but it seems that it happened anyway.  Oops.

If I’m being perfectly honest, it was kind of nice.  Not being tied to a camera or a computer for a little while.  I might try it more often.

Not that I don’t enjoy coming here and sharing with you – certainly I do.  I just might be doing it a little more sporadically right now (not that I was all that regular about it before).  When I make something that I think you’ll particularly appreciate, then I’ll share it with you.  That’s what this space is really for, after all.

It’s still January for a few more days.  I didn’t really make any earth-shattering resolutions at the start of this New Year.  I’ve found that I’m not very good at keeping them.  What I did decide with some certainty is that I really need to simplify.  Complicated is just…well…too complicated.  So, simple it shall be.

I’ve kind of gotten into a routine with my cooking.  Another reason posting hasn’t happened much lately – not much new to share.   Once a week or so, I make this chicken (or some variation thereon), and we eat about half of it for dinner that same day.  Then I cut the rest of the meat off the carcass and tuck it away for use another day and make this lovely dark chicken stock out of the bones.casserole2

Then, a day or so later, I make chicken and rice casserole with that leftover meat.  I know what you’re thinking – casserole is so passé (does anyone even say passé anymore, or is that passé)?  Just hear me out, though.

casserole4 (2)

See – I have a very picky toddler in my house.  He’s three, and he’s demanding.  And also sometimes unpleasant.  And unlike his older, more amenable brother, he doesn’t care much about pleasing anyone but himself.  So if he doesn’t like something?  He makes life pretty miserable for the rest of us.  Thus, rather than making two different dinners every night, I’m trying to come up with things that we can all enjoy (and that don’t involve opening a box of noodles that may also contain a packet of orange cheese-flavored powder – not that I haven’t done that a time or two in desperation).  This seems like a good enough compromise.casserole1

It’s loosely based on this casserole from the archives of Paula Deen.  I say loosely because hers involves opening a bunch of cans (canned chicken, canned soup, canned beans, canned water chestnuts, parboiled rice, etc).  My version takes sauteed onions and celery and homemade chicken stock and just the tiniest hint of heavy cream and mixes it all together with hearty brown rice and skillet roasted chicken (and maybe a smidge of extra-sharp cheddar) for a flavorful, tummy pleasing meal.  Paired with a salad for the grown-ups and some unsweetened applesauce for the kids, it’s an easy weeknight fix (and disagreeable-toddler-approved).


Chicken and Rice Casserole

prep time: 10 minutes

cook time: 45 minutes

serves: 6-8


  • 2 Tablespoons oil (I used coconut, but you could use olive oil or butter – whatever you have)
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 2 stalks of celery, diced
  • 8 oz. cremini mushrooms, cubed (optional – this was decidedly not a toddler-approved addition, but I enjoyed it)
  • 2 Tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 Tablespoons heavy cream
  • 6-8 oz. of cooked chicken, diced (I used one breast and one thigh off a pre-roasted chicken)
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese (this was about 2 1/4 oz. by weight)
  • 2 cups brown rice, cooked according to package directions (yields approximately 6 cups cooked)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Preheat the oven to 350F
  2. In a large oven-proof enameled cast iron pan over medium-high heat, saute your onions and celery in oil until they begin to become translucent (if you don’t have a pan like this, you can do everything in a regular skillet and then transfer it to a casserole dish to bake in the oven).
  3. Add the mushrooms and let them get good and brown.  Taste for seasoning – add salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Sprinkle the flour into the pan and stir it around.  Let it cook for a few minutes so that it loses the raw flour taste.  You’re making a roux.
  5. Pour the chicken stock in the pan and stir to combine, making sure you dissolve any lumps of flour that might be remaining.  Let it come to a boil – it should thicken.
  6. Add the heavy cream and stir to combine.  Turn off the burner.
  7. Add the chicken and the rice.  Carefully stir to combine.
  8. Add the cheese and stir through.
  9. Cover and bake in a 350F oven for 45 minutes.  Remove the lid during the last 15 minutes to let the top get good and brown.
  10. Enjoy!



$5 Slow Food Challenge: Jambalaya and Community

The concept of community is relatively new for me, but I’m learning to embrace the idea.  I’m lucky, because my neighbors are warm and welcoming – something that I’ve not always been completely familiar or comfortable with.  I’m getting there, though – more and more every day.

I signed on with Slow Food USA about a month ago to take their $5 challenge. I had these grandiose ideas that I’d throw an elaborate dinner party and invite friends and family to be a part of it.  Then I realized that the scheduled date for the challenge coincided with a writing workshop that I’d already paid to attend.  So, I decided that instead of doing it on the 17th, I’d do it on the 18th, mostly so I could do it justice.  And it wouldn’t be a dinner party, per se. It would just be dinner for the family.  The immediate family – the ones that live in this house.  At least, that’s how it started.

Anthony Bourdain says, on his Travel Channel blog, that “the greatest , most beloved and iconic dishes in the pantheon of gastronomy—in any of the world’s mother cuisines—French, Italian or Chinese–originated with poor, hard-pressed, hard working farmers and laborers with no time, little money and no refrigeration.”

For this $5 challenge, I decided to look to one of those beloved and iconic dishes – one that originated in a culture that thrived mainly because the people who cultivated it knew how to stretch just about everything to make it last longer and go further.  Jambalaya (both the Creole and the Cajun version) derives from Spanish paella, and uses inexpensive but flavorful ingredients to create an abundant, filling meal.

There is a sense of community in the Cajun/Creole culture.  An ingrained reliance on neighbors and extended family for support and sustenance.  A cooperative spirit.  As a whole, we’ve moved away from this sense of community – everyone is so isolated, so insulated from each other.  We’ve forgotten where we come from in our hurry to get where we’re going, and we ignore the importance of tradition and camaraderie in our quest for self reliance.  And I’m as guilty of it as the next person.

Yesterday, as I gathered the ingredients for this simple dinner, intending for it to feed only myself, my husband and our two boys (and perhaps my mother, if she didn’t already have dinner plans), I got a text message from our neighbor across the street.  She was inviting us to come over for an afternoon swim.  I had just started cooking, and I wasn’t sure whether my husband would be done with yard work in time, or that I’d have dinner ready anytime soon, so I started to text her back with a “thanks, but no thanks – maybe next time” kind of message.

But then I reconsidered.  I looked at the pound of sausage that I was browning, and the 8 chicken legs I had waiting in the wings, and the two cups of rice, and I thought: this is enough to feed all of us, and still have food left over.  So instead of “thanks, but no thanks” I told her I’d just started cooking jambalaya, but that we’d love to share with her and her husband.  So, an hour later, we trekked across the street in our bathing suits, carrying a large pot of jambalaya and some of the last tomatoes from our garden, and we shared a meal with our neighbors.  And it was that much better because of the sharing.

I managed to make this meal for about $16 total, but that’s mainly because the majority of the ingredients came from my garden and my canning pantry.  I used chicken stock that I’d put up a while back, a jar of tomatoes that I’d canned during the peak of tomato season, and the bell peppers, thyme and parsley also came from the garden.  The andouille came from a regional supplier to Harry’s Farmer’s Market and was probably the most expensive part of the dish at $6.99 a pound.  The chicken came from two pounds of organic drumsticks that I’d bought for $2.99 a pound a while back and froze for use at a later date.  I don’t think they were local, but they were just about the only part of the dish that wasn’t – well, except for the rice.   If you break that down, we fed seven people for about $2.25 per person, and we had leftovers.

prep time: 10 minutes
cook time: 1 hour
serves: 8-10


  • 1 lb. fresh or smoked andouille sausage
  • 2 lbs. chicken parts
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon dried parsley
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 1/2 cups brown rice
  • 3 cups canned diced tomatoes, with juice
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  1. Begin by browning the sausage in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, allowing some of the fat to render out.
  2. Remove the sausage to a plate and brown the chicken parts in the fat from the sausage.  I removed the skin from the chicken legs, but you can leave it on if you want (more flavor that way, but also more fat).
  3. Remove the chicken to a plate
  4. Saute the onion, celery, pepper and garlic in the same pan you browned the meat in
  5. Add the uncooked rice, parsley, thyme, salt and pepper and stir to combine.
  6. Slice the sausage into 1/2-inch thick rounds and add it and the chicken back to the pot.
  7. Add the tomatoes and the chicken stock to the pan and stir to combine.
  8. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover.  Allow to simmer, covered until the rice is cooked through.  Cook uncovered to thicken sauce if necessary.
  9. Enjoy!

Dinner Improv: Basil Beef Stir Fry

Sometimes I get bored with leftovers.  After I’ve eaten something once or twice, I’m ready to move on.  But I also hate to let things go to waste, which is where the ability to re-purpose and re-envision ingredients comes in handy.The other day, I was faced with an abundance of green beans from the garden and some leftover grilled flank steak in the fridge.  We do a lot of southwest and Latin influenced meals, but I wasn’t really in the mood for fajitas or tacos or burritos on this particular day.  Besides, the green beans didn’t really fit into that flavor profile.

I decided instead to go the Asian route and do a stir fry, incorporating some rainbow carrots from the garden, and some red bell pepper and sweet yellow onion.  I didn’t really use a recipe, just went on instinct and tasted as I cooked.  I served it all over some brown rice.  This is a great example of improvisation in the kitchen, using the ingredients you have on hand to dictate the outcome rather than the other way around.

Basil Beef Stir Fry
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
serves: 4-6

Ingredients (all measurements are approximations – taste and season as you go)

  • 2 Tablespoons neutral cooking oil (I used grapeseed)
  • 1/2 lb. leftover beef or chicken (or tofu, if you want it to be vegetarian), sliced very thinly
  • 1/2 lb. green beans
  • 1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 2 medium carrots, julienned
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, cut in chiffonade
  • 1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar
  • 2 cups brown rice, cooked according to package instructions

  1. Heat oil in a saute pan over high heat.
  2. Sautee the onions, peppers and carrots until they begin to brown and soften
  3. Add the meat and stir to heat through
  4. Add the green beans and saute briefly
  5. Combine the soy sauce, vinegar and sugar and add to the pan. Stir to coat the ingredients.
  6. Remove pan from the heat and cover.  Allow to sit for a few minutes so the green beans will steam to finish cooking.
  7. Add the basil just before serving.
  8. Serve over cooked rice with a little of the pan sauce.  Garnish with a sprig of basil.
  9. Enjoy!

I spiced mine up a bit by adding some of my favorite fermented chili paste – it played very well against the sweetness of the basil.

So, what are your favorite ways to improvise in the kitchen?  Do you choose your ingredients based on a recipe, or do you like to let your ingredients dictate your dinner?