A week ago we had a record-shattering blizzard. Three months ago, the “storm of the century.” Considering the meteorological walloping the East Coast received recently, it’s no surprise a lot of people are thinking preparedness. Water, batteries, generators and the like are such hot items that even my local coffee shop is stocking DDs right there on the counter next to the sugar and coffee stirrers. A frenzy of milk and bread buying ensues at the mere mention of the word “storm.” All of that is good. After what we’ve been through “better safe than sorry” isn’t a bad idea. But what about being prepared for less climatic and climactic events? That’s when a box mix and a covered dish come into play.
Seriously Karin….a BOX MIX? I once pooh-poohed the idea of always having a prepackaged mix around as a pantry staple too. I laughed when my friend told me of her mother’s advice to always have one handy for emergencies. In my mind, box mixes were relegated to the same bucket as TV-dinners – maybe when I was a kid, but that was before I actually learned to cook. That was, until I found myself in a situation where I really needed one. It’s not all that uncommon. Kids let you know they promised the teacher they’d bring in cupcakes for class tomorrow, just as you are tucking them in? No worry if you have a box-mix, (and you didn’t need that extra hour or two of sleep anyway.) Want to invite that cute and single new neighbor moving in to drop by for coffee when he’s finished unpacking? If you just happen to have something fresh out of the oven to nibble on you definitely up the odds of future nibbling. And what if you find out last-minute you need to coerce colleagues to come in an hour early tomorrow for your new pet project? Mention you’ll bring some baked goods from home, because if you feed them, they will come…
Casseroles used to suffer the same fate as the Betty Crocker box in my mind. Visions of female casserole brigades making their way to the newest widower in the retirement community, cans of condensed soup and Garrison Keillor’s church socials filled my head. Funny thing about a good casserole though. When you bring one to a potluck, new neighbor or laid-up friend, the reception is always warm and the leftovers always scare. Everybody loves a good casserole, including me. And why not? It’s the perfect expression of creativity, efficiency and frugality in a pan. Each bite is a complete meal of protein, vegetable, starch and sauce, all under a crunchy, savory topping. So while I may have scoffed in my early cooking and food-snobby past, I now embrace the humble covered-dish. There are few other things in this world that can nourish, comfort and welcome all at once. And if you have a box-mix on hand, dessert is covered too.
Tarragon Chicken Casserole
With it’s origins in my chicken thing recipe, this casserole gets classed up a bit for company with tarragon, cognac, fingerlings and peas. You could serve it just like that, but like any good casserole it needs a topping. I’ve given you a few options, from breadcrumbs to biscuits or puff pastry. Whatever you choose, it’s a perfect bring-along for any casserole occasion.
Makes 4 servings
- 3 large boneless skinless chicken thighs (about a pound or a little more)
- 2 TBSP olive oil
- 2 TBSP flour
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp pepper
- ½ cup chopped onions
- 10 oz. package of sliced cremini mushrooms (or whole mushrooms you slice)
- 8 oz. fingerlings potatoes
- 3 TBSP chopped fresh tarragon
- 1 TBSP heavy cream
- 2 oz. goat cheese
- Zest of a lemon
- 2 TBSP cognac
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 cup frozen peas
Preheat oven to 400°F. Add salt, pepper and flour into a zip-closure bag and mix. Cut up the chicken into bite-sized pieces, drop into the bag and give the chicken a good mixing in the seasoned flour so every piece is covered.
Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan. Sauté chicken over medium-high heat until it is lightly browned on all sides. Remove to a bowl. Turn heat to medium, add in the onions, mushrooms and a pinch of salt. Cook until onions are wilted and mushrooms have given up most of their moisture and the pan is relatively dry. As the vegetables are cooking, put the fingerlings in a microwave safe dish. Toss with a TBSP of water and a pinch of salt. Cover and microwave on high for 1-2 minutes or until the potatoes are just beginning to become tender but not mushy.
When the mushrooms are a little moist but not wet, remove the pan from the burner and add in the cognac, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Place pan back on the heat, add in the remaining ingredients except the peas and bring just up to a boil. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook about 25 minutes until the chicken is done. Remove cover and continue to simmer another 5 minutes to thicken sauce a bit. If you still think it’s too soupy, dissolve 2 tsp corn starch in one TBSP each of cold water and sour cream, cream or milk, add to dish and stir. The sauce will thicken as it heats up. Taste and adjust seasonings. Stir in the frozen peas, and pour into casserole dish large enough to hold 5 cups (you should have about that much filling).
Choice of toppings
Breadcrumbs: 1/2 cup breadcrumbs (plain or seasoned), drizzled with 1-2 TBSP of melted butter and a pinch of salt– bake until crumbs have browned and casserole is bubbling.
Biscuit topping: Use your favorite “box mix” (enough for 4-5 biscuits), or make them from scratch using any of the many drop biscuit recipes out there. Spread or drop biscuit dough on top of casserole and back according to the recipe you use.
Puff pastry: Using your favorite brand, roll out to fit about ½ inch larger than your casserole dish. You could also divide up the casserole filling into individual potpies too. Wet the rim of your dish with a little water, then cover the dish with the pastry and pressing the extra dough around the edges so it sticks. Cut a slit or two in the center of the dough to allow steam to escape. Brush with milk or cream and sprinkle a little salt and pepper on top. Bake at 400°F for 20 minutes or more, until the dough is golden and filling is bubbly.
Let the casserole sit for 5 minutes before serving. Calories: The casserole without topping is about 360 calories per serving. The toppings add anywhere from 60 (breadcrumbs) to 100 (pastry) to 200 (biscuit) extra calories per serving.
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