I was raised in a very sheltered household when it came to food. Sure, we would eat the incredible Italian or Chinese food my father prepared by hand, or feast on amazing French, Japanese, Indian, Greek, Bistro, or Thai cuisines from local restaurants. I mean, I did grow up in New York. But I was very cloistered when it came to one cuisine… American. I was probably 25 before I tasted my first meatloaf. My father and stepmother were both raised in the suburbs (one in Maryland, one in the Midwest) with very traditional American family fare and it was an unspoken law that that cuisine never would cross their daughter’s lips (or their own ever again).
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I married a man who had been raised on a gaggle of Air Force bases across the south. The Christmas after we got engaged, we visited his grandparents who lived in Florida. His whole family had flown in from various places across the country, as they did every year. I had only met the nuclear family and was a little on edge to meet the rest of the herd. I was a young and outrageous artist and felt a lot of pressure to present myself as relatively normal to my new ultra-conservative family.
The first night we were all gathered in the 1960’s wood paneled eat-in kitchen as Maw Maw (his grandmother) announced we would be having Chuckie Casserole for dinner. This was met with a great cheer from the crowd.
“What’s Chuckie Casserole?” My little voice peeped in from a wobbly stool in the back of the room. I wasn’t a chef at that point, but I did like to cook and this seemed a great opportunity to draw Maw Maw out and let the rest of the family see how well I could interact.
“Well, when Bob (my soon-to-be-father-in-law) was a kid, he had a friend who absolutely loved this casserole that I used to make.” Her voice was a pleasure to listen to. Her southern drawl lingering over every vowel. “Every time he came over he would ask if we were having that casserole. ‘Are we having it? Are we having the casserole Maw Maw? Are we? Are we?’ It was like he needed that casserole so much! And it got to be such a thing that we just started calling it Chuckie Casserole!” Everyone was laughing and nodding. Ah, Chuckie. What a great memory recounted with oodles of southern charm the way only Maw Maw could do it.
“What’s in it?” I inquired, appealing to her clear mastery in the kitchen.
“Well, I start with macaroni noodles,” Taking the stage, she walked around the kitchen, pointing to the different spots where each ingredient was kept. “And then I throw in some cut up boiled chicken,” (pointing to the fridge) “and a couple cans of tuna,” (cabinet) “and some pearl onions, and some tomato sauce, and some frozen peas,” (freezer) “and a can of green beans, and some frozen carrots, and some cream of mushroom soup, and some sour cream, and some Velveeta cheese,” (other cabinet) “and I top the whole thing off with some crumbled up Ritz crackers.” She lifted the box of crackers on the counter, triumphant. My mouth went dry and my stomach turned.
“Sounds more like upchuckie casserole to me!” I blurted.
Oh my god, the room was silent.
I really don’t know what I was thinking. I honestly thought everyone would think it was funny because there’s no way that anyone could think putting those ingredients together in their mouths at the same time would make you happy. It was unfathomable to me then, and not that much clearer to me now.
We were married for a total of 10 months.
I blame my parents. It’s a big world out there. You need to be prepared for anything.
While I still shudder at the thought of most noodle casseroles, I have softened to many American foods (there’s a fantastic Meatloaf recipe in my “The Circle of Loaf” blog post, for example). Here is my favorite of them all… Chicken Pot Pie. This comes courtesy of Cook’s Illustrated, where they suggest having a slightly spicy crumble topping instead of a blanket of puff pastry or a quilt of biscuits. It’s a welcome change to the classic and is perfect for this time of year.
CHICKEN POT PIE
(From Cook’s Illustrated)
- 1 ½ pounds boneless chicken breasts and/or thighs
- 3 cups low salt chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped fine (about 1 cup)
- 3 medium carrots, peeled and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices (about 1 cup)
- 2 small celery ribs, chopped fine (about ½ cup)
- Table salt and ground black pepper
- 10 ounces cremini mushrooms , stems trimmed, caps wiped clean and sliced thin
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon tomato paste
- 4 tablespoons ( ½ stick) unsalted butter
- ½ cup unbleached all purpose flour
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 teaspoons juice from 1 lemon
- 3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
- ¾ cup frozen baby peas
- 2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ¾ teaspoon table salt
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch cubes and chilled
- 1 ounce Parmesan cheese , finely grated (about ½ cup)
- ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- FOR THE CHICKEN: Bring chicken and broth to simmer in covered Dutch oven over medium heat. Cook until chicken is just done, 8 to 12 minutes. Transfer cooked chicken to large bowl. Pour broth through fine-mesh strainer into liquid measuring cup and reserve. Do not wash Dutch oven. Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 450 degrees.
- FOR THE TOPPING: Combine flour, baking powder, salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper in large bowl. Sprinkle butter pieces over top of flour. Using fingers, rub butter into flour mixture until it resembles coarse cornmeal. Stir in Parmesan. Add cream and stir until just combined. Crumble mixture into irregularly shaped pieces ranging from 1/2 to ¾ inch each onto parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet. Bake until fragrant and starting to brown, 10 to 13 minutes. Set aside.
- FOR THE FILLING: Heat 1 tablespoon oil in now-empty Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion, carrots, celery, ¼ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper; cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until just tender, 5 to 7 minutes. While vegetables are cooking, shred chicken into small bite-size pieces. Transfer cooked vegetables to bowl with chicken; set aside.
- Heat remaining tablespoon oil in empty Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add mushrooms; cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms have released their juices, about 5 minutes. Remove cover and stir in soy sauce and tomato paste. Increase heat to medium-high and cook, stirring frequently, until liquid has evaporated, mushrooms are well browned, and dark fond begins to form on surface of pan, about 5 minutes. Transfer mushrooms to bowl with chicken and vegetables. Set aside.
- Heat butter in empty Dutch oven over medium heat. When foaming subsides, stir in flour and cook 1 minute. Slowly whisk in reserved chicken broth and milk. Bring to simmer, scraping pan bottom with wooden spoon to loosen browned bits, then continue to simmer until sauce fully thickens, about 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice and 2 tablespoons parsley.
- Stir chicken-vegetable mixture and peas into sauce. Pour mixture into 13 by 9-inch baking dish or casserole dish of similar size. Scatter crumble topping evenly over filling. Bake on rimmed baking sheet until filling is bubbling and topping is well browned, 12 to 15 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining tablespoon parsley and serve.