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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Arborio Casserole (Chicken)

In my mind, the word casserole smacks a slightly sinister connotation.  My working mother would whip up one of these sort of hodgepodge meals at least once a week.

You can't blame her; they are quick and easy, and often are complete meals in and of themselves.
Neither is she alone; the ubiquitous casserole is practically synonymous with North American cuisine.

However... to me, there's something wrong about using condensed soup as a medium.  If you've read even a little of my posts here, it should be apparent that I'm a wannabe saucier, and all-around general fan of sauces.

Soup is not sauce.

Soup is soup.


<gnashes teeth>.

So, if you're like me, the word casserole invokes a simply (often hastily) prepared, baked dish of some sort of noodle or rice, some form of chopped meat, some kind of green vegetable(s), and all - at least attempted to be - loosely held together by some sort of condensed soup.  When I was a kid my mom would sometimes bake with some cheese on top too, just for a little extra flavour.

Well... my wife can tell you, my kitchen doesn't really see many casseroles.  In fact I could probably count on one hand all the casseroles I've ever made.

That said... this week I was hit, rather unceremoniously, with a strong desire to whip one up.

Not to boast, but to justify my above harsh criticism of 'typical' North American casseroles, and in accordance with what I would hope anyone would come to expect from me, I of course made everything from scratch.

As is my wont.

Here, then, is my account of the Arborio Cream Casserole I made this week.

I begin, as usual, with the sauce.  And, as usual, that begins with sauteing some garlic and onion.

These root veggies are not chopped overly finely, as I'm bringing out the food processor on this one.  

A little bit of olive oil in the mix, and I pureed the onion first.  That gets added to the pan first, and sauteed for a few minutes on medium-low heat.

While that's sauteing, I do the same for the garlic: a dash of olive oil and pureed in the blender.  And, after about 5 minutes - as the onion is starting to change colour - the garlic gets added and gets about another 4 minutes.

Once that is nicely golden, I remove this from the pan, and set it aside for now (in my casserole dish, for lack of anywhere better.

While this is all going on, I am going to start my rice cooking.  A spoonful of chicken bouillon mixed in helps give the rice a bit of subtle flavour.

That will take at least a half-hour, so it's good to get that started early.

So, after scraping out the root veggies saute, I'm left with a deliciously seasoned pan, ready for more additions.


So, now comes some chicken.

A couple of breasts, not too big, cubed and seasoned.

I mixed up a spice melange, consisting mainly of thyme, salt and pepper, and milled that in my mortar and pestle.

Then, cut up the chicken into pieces no bigger than 1"2.  

Toss, in a medium mixing bowl, with a drop or three of olive oil, and the spice mixture.

Then, after bringing that seasoned pan back up to heat, grill the chicken, giving it a good hand toss every few minutes.

Once the chicken is almost cooked, and seared nicely on both sides, throw in that sauteed garlic and onion mixture you had set aside.

Turn the heat down to medium-low and mix that all together nicely.

After a minute, pour in a cup or more of milk.  I used skim milk.

Not much to look at when it's first poured in, but just wait until we thicken it up.

A tablespoon of corn starch, a teaspoon of bouillon (chicken), and a splash of milk (skim), all whisked together cold, gives us a nice thickening agent.

Whisk that into the pan gradually, and watch your liquids magically become a sauce.  :)


Looks kind of like cream of chicken soup, doesn't it?  Except a quarter of the fat, a tenth of the sodium, all natural ingredients, and from scratch.

"From scratch" is always better.

In the words of my hero Ron Swanson: "People who buy things are suckers".

Heh heh heh.

Oh man, Ron is so awesome... <wipes tear>

Anyway, back to the casserole.  At this point, everything is pretty much ready to be combined and baked.

So, lay down the rice:

Pour in the chicken and sauce:

Although this next step is optional, I do recommend it... grate a layer of parmigiano reggiano over the whole thing!

Cover with foil, and bake at 350° for about 20-30 minutes.

After that, remove from the oven, switch on your broiler, and remove the foil.

It's nicely baked, but we want to crisp it up.  So throw it under the broiler for about 5 to 10 more minutes, keeping an eye (and a nostril) on it.

It's ready once the cheese on top gets exquisitely browned.

Let this bad boy cool for a few minutes before cracking it, but it's ready to go!


So, this is my homemade take on the classic North American chicken casserole.

It was really good.