This was one of those weekends that just didn’t feel like a weekend. I have had one commitment after another, which continued until I got to a point where my bodymind pretty much just shut down. We’ve had leftovers for dinner the last two nights, just out of necessity.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind leftovers, especially when the food that is leftover is delicious and homemade. But you can only have leftovers for so long until– well, until there’s no food that’s leftover. And, of course, Lee returned to Buffalo today for hir next week of law school, and I like to make sure ze has some good food to take along with hir. These factors meant that, tired or not, I had to cook dinner yesterday night.
I decided the best bet was to take it a little easy on myself and make a casserole. Casseroles can be a beautiful, simple and delicious way to get a balanced meal. I made this casserole yesterday, and served it alongside a salad made with baby greens, dried cranberries, home-grown cherry tomatoes and a honey-mustard vinaigrette (recipe also in this post) and some warmed whole-grain bread with garlic butter.
This recipe is also posted with my good friend and dharma sister Reaunna in mind. You see, Reaunna recently posted a request on Transgustatory’s Facebook page that I put up a recipe for “a casserole that doesn’t involve green beans or cream of mushroom soup.” How can I resist such an amusingly specific request? (Especially since I had more than enough green bean casserole growing up. It was kind of a staple in some family members’ homes. Don’t judge: I lived in the Midwest.)
Now, many recipes for chicken divan that you will find nowadays DO call for canned cream of mushroom soup. A disheartening number of them, in fact: I looked up a good two dozen different recipes for it when Lee requested that I make Chicken Divan for us, and the vast majority called for cream of mushroom soup. What follows is my amalgamation of the best parts of all of them, with a laudatory absence of condensed soup products.
One of the ingredients in this recipe is leeks. Leeks are wonderful. According to my prized cookbook On Cooking by Sarah Labensky, Alan Hause and Priscilla Martel (thanks, Dad, for supporting my love of cooking with this indulgent cookbook that I never could have afforded!), “their flavor is sweeter and stronger than scallions, but milder than common bulb onions.” This makes them optimal for adding some richness and flavor to dishes made with a white sauce.
Their peak season is from fall to early spring, but they can be grown in many regions year-round. One thing to keep in mind when preparing them is to cut them in half lengthwise and rinse out the gritty dirt between the layers. A bite full of grit will ruin an otherwise perfect dish.
Also, you can use some of the green part of the leek, but the tough, dark-green top should be cut off. The dark-green parts can be used to make stocks (as they are in this recipe), but shouldn’t be chopped up and used in the dish itself. They are too tough. Who wants hard-to-chew, grassy onion gum? That’s right: no one.
Another hint in the best interest of the dish: if the broccoli stalks are stringy or tough, go ahead and peel off the tough outer layer.
And, speaking of broccoli, it is VERY, VERY IMPORTANT THAT YOU DO NOT OVER COOK THE BROCCOLI. Was I too subtle? I really hope not. Unless you actually enjoyed eating the brownish, texture-less glop of overcooked, cloyingly-odorous substance that once may have been broccoli that was served in your elementary school cafeteria, you need to trust me on this. The desired point at which to drain the broccoli is when it is bright green and “crisp-tender,” as my Dad calls it: that is, easy to bite through without a crispy-crunchy sound, but still quite firm in the center.
On the same subject: it is actually important to have the broccoli and the chicken in two separate layers. You may be tempted to just mix it all together: what’s the difference, right? Well, the difference is that the flavor of the chicken is enhanced by being on the top and getting slightly browned, while being on the bottom layer helps insulate the broccoli from being cooked too much during the baking process. Plus, it looks cool and yummyyummy with the layer of sharp cheddar cheese between the green of the broccoli layer and the golden brown of the chicken layer. Pretty foods taste better: I don’t know why, but it’s true. It may seem tedious, but it is well worth the extra three minutes it takes in prep time for the end result.
Traditionally, Chicken Divan is made with sherry. Here’s the thing: I don’t like sherry, and I don’t want to spend my money on it: all it would do would be grow dusty in a corner of my cabinet, which for some reason seems wasteful to me. However, I didn’t want to completely lose the flavor and texture benefits of a dry alcohol in the sauce. So, I substituted an extremely dry, rich white wine, and thought the result was delicious. So, use the traditional sherry, or substitute white wine if you’re more likely to finish a bottle of that than of sherry, or omit it all together if you don’t cook with alcohol. Whichever way you decide to go on that, the recipe itself is so solid and flavorful that you won’t go wrong.
- 1 stick butter, divided
- 1T olive oil
- 1 large leek or two small leeks, cut in half lengthwise and then sliced into crescent-moons (as pictured above)
- The dark-green tops of the leeks, washed, rinsed and left whole
- 1 1/2 lbs. chicken breasts, cut into quarters
- 1 large head broccoli or three broccoli crowns: washed, rinsed and cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1/3 cup flour
- 1 c slivered almonds
- 1 c light cream
- 1 cup sour cream
- juice of 1 lemon
- 1/3 lb. shredded parmesan cheese
- 1/4 c sherry or dry white wine
- 1 c shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- 1 c bread crumbs
- Melt 1 T of the butter in the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saute pan. Add the leeks and saute over medium heat until they are soft and translucent. Set aside.
- Bring 8 cups water to a boil. Add the chicken and the green tops of the leek. Boil until the chicken is fully cooked, approximately 10-15 minutes. Remove the chicken and leek tops with a slotted spoon: DO NOT DRAIN. Discard the leek tops; set the chicken aside to cool some.
- Add the broccoli to the water in which the chicken was cooked. Cook only until bright green, 3-5 minutes. Drain, but reserve 1 1/2 cups of the broth for the sauce. Mix the leeks and the broccoli.
- Melt 4 T of the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the flour, and stir until smooth and fragrant. Slowly and gradually stir in the reserved broth. Stir in the almonds and cook, stirring constantly, until thick and bubbly. Lower the heat to medium-low. Gradually stir in the cream, sour cream and lemon juice: cook for 2 minutes, still stirring constantly. Add salt and pepper to taste, then stir in half the parmesan and the sherry or dry white wine. Remove from heat.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Shred the chicken into small pieces with your fingers.
- Add half the sauce to the chicken, and half to the broccoli. Stir gently but thoroughly.
- Melt the remaining butter, and stir into the breadcrumbs.
- Put the broccoli into a lightly buttered casserole dish. Top with the cheddar cheese, then cover with the chicken mixture. Top the chicken with the remaining parmesan cheese, then distribute the breadcrumbs over the cheese.
- Bake for 30 minutes, until the sauce is bubbly. Increase heat to 450 and cook approximately 10 more minutes until the top is browned. Allow to sit 15 minutes before serving.
- 2 T apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 c lemon juice
- 2 T honey
- 2 T spicy mustard
- 1 1/2 t tarragon
- 1/2 c olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- Place the first five ingredients in a blender. Blend over first low, then high speed.
- Gradually, in a slow, thin stream, pour the oil through the hole in the lid with the blender still going. Doing this slowly and on high speed will help prevent separation of the ingredients.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste: fell free to adjust the amounts of the lemon juice, honey, mustard, tarragon and oil to suit your taste preferences.