Monday, March 4, 2013

Everyday Yumminess: Chicken Divan Casserole

My mom tells me that she sometimes made Chicken Divan Casserole for us when we were growing up. I am not about to call my mother a liar, but somehow the food memory didn't dig itself very far into my brain, so this isn't a dish I would have thought to seek out a recipe for and make... A couple weeks ago, though, a friend mentioned some pangs of nostalgia for the Chicken Divan his mom had made for him when he was young...and what kind of friend would I be if I didn't try to make a version of this classic for him? (I know the pictures of the finished dish are a little scrappy, but it's comfort food so I wasn't about to mess around with fancy plating...)
When broaching the subject of Chicken Divan, my friend asked if casserole was beneath me, to which I replied "Of course not! I love casserole!"... but I that was sort of a lie.  I do love casserole, but I can't really bring myself to make a recipe that involves vats of mayo and cans of Cream of Whatever soup at this point in my life (as most recipes I saw for Chicken Divan do...).  I'm not saying such things aren't delicious, it just feels dirty and wrong to even ponder using them anymore... The best-looking recipe I found is from the 2006 edition of Joy of Cooking.  A copy of the recipe with the modifications I made is posted here. The pictures below are from a double-batch, with half going into a 9" x 9" baking dish and the rest distributed among six 12-ounce ramekins (because I like making individual portions).
Part of the genius of this recipe is the bottom layer of toasted, buttered bread.  The original called for white bread, but I used sourdough because I like flavor... Especially with the ramekins you'll end up with some trimmings, which I just tossed into the food processor to turn into bread crumbs (some of which topped the casserole later).
The key component of this dish if you're not using vats of mayo and canned soup is a lovely Mornay sauce, seasoned with bay leaves, onion, cloves, and cayenne. Mornay is basically just a B├ęchamel with cheese added, which is pretty genius if you ask  me...
The onions, bay, and cloves steep in the warm milk, then you make your roux, strain the milk into it, whisk until thickened, and melt in your cheese. (I used two parts extra-sharp white cheddar and one part Parmesan because it's what I had on hand... but I may play with that next time.)  That's the most work involved in the whole dish, and it's pretty easy...
The only other ingredients are perfectly cooked chicken (which, for me, means sous vide-cooked at 143°F for about 4 hours...) and broccoli. I went ahead and just threw the chicken breasts in the vacuum bag in a lump, so I had kind of a loaf of chicken breast when it was done, which made for easy slicing...
The recipe called for frozen broccoli, but I wasn't about to do that, so I lightly blanched a couple heads of fresh broccoli instead...
Another change I made was to make two layers of yumminess rather than the single layer in the original recipe (which is part of why I made a little extra Mornay... the other part being that it's delicious...).  I divided about half of the chicken among the containers, then half of the broccoli...
You top this with half the Mornay...
and repeat...
When you top with your final layer of Mornay, you sprinkle the top with grated Parmesan and (optional) bread crumbs... plus, if you're me, an (optional) generous pinch of cayenne...
After baking, you have a lovely, bubbling dish of yumminess...  I actually forgot to take any pictures of the finished dish the day I made this, as is often the case when I have guests over... but you can see my cold-from-the-fridge brunch version of the 9" x 9" here...
 
and the individual version (again) here...
So, yeah... I managed to incorporate sous vide cooking and my favorite adorable ramekins into an old-school comfort food classic without using canned or frozen foods, but I feel like it remains true to what the dish is supposed to be... The sun is shining in Portland today, but there's still a chill in the air that makes this a perfect time for comfort food, and Chicken Divan definitely fits the bill. This is definitely going on the "make again soon" list...

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