Feb 5 2010

Making Broccoli Cheese Chicken Casserole

February 5th, 2010 at 8:16 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Ever have a salty gooey cheesy craving? I woke up one morning about two weeks ago and had one of those cravings, and the first thing that popped into my mind was a melted aged hard cheese. Aged hard cheeses tend to accumulate these flavorful salt crystals and can be excellent in natural or melted form.

Think of an aged pecorino, Parmesan, Padona, Mimolette, or Gouda. Or even an extra sharp cheddar (impossible to find on Bonaire, I should add)!

The next thought was that I had a package of boneless, skinless chicken thighs in my freezer and broccoli in my fridge. I prefer using dark, fattier chicken meat when cooking dishes with chicken pieces in them. Chicken breasts chunks are boring lumps of threaded protein as far as I’m concerned.

The only thing I was missing was the cheese. A rather important component, and I did not have it readily available.

I set forth on an expedition in search of aged cheese, and in particular aged, or “oude” (old) Gouda, which on Bonaire, as a Dutch island, shouldn’t be too hard to find, right? Well, it wasn’t easy – oh what I’d give for a Whole Foods with a real fromagerie! I had to hit four markets before I found anything other than the ever common young Gouda or shredded mild cheddar. For those who know Bonaire, I went to Warehouse Bonaire, Cash & Carry, and Cultimara. I finally found my aged Gouda at More For Less, a small market tucked away in the local neighborhood of Nikoboko.

Two of the stronger flavored cheeses I found here on Bonaire - a Vincent and an aged Gouda

Two of the stronger flavored cheeses I found here on Bonaire - a Vincent and an aged Gouda (prices in Antillean Guilders/Florins - Exchange rate is Naf. 1,75 = $1.00)

I also found some nice Vincent cheese, which is another aged Gouda-style cow’s milk cheese which is not quite as crumbly as a really aged Gouda, but still firm and very flavorful. I purchased a couple of pounds of each cheese, thrilled that I could make my culinary desires for the day come true, especially after the first three markets and their lack of the right cheeses were making my prospects look very dim indeed.

Back home, after thawing out the chicken, I cut it into small pieces and then marinated it for half a day in a blend of white wine (a 2007 Bel Echo Sauvignon Blanc), rosemary, sea salt, white pepper, sage, lots of garlic, and olive oil.

I used boneless, skinless chicken thighs for my broccoli cheese chicken casserole

I used boneless, skinless chicken thighs for my broccoli cheese chicken casserole

Marinating the chicken in white wine, rosemary, garlic, olive oil, salt, and sage

Marinating the chicken in white wine, rosemary, garlic, olive oil, salt, and sage

In the evening, Krystyana shredded all the cheese for me, and to add a little more gooeyness, I added a bag of pre-shredded cheddar and Monterey jack blend.

After all the cheese was shredded, and blended with cheddar and Monterey Jack as well

After all the cheese was shredded, and blended with cheddar and Monterey Jack as well

The next trick was making a good cheese sauce. My only prior experience with large amounts of melted cheese has been fondues, so I adapted my fondue knowledge to the task at hand.

In advance I prepared a small cup with lemon juice and another with a bit of water into which I dissolved a few tablespoons of arrowroot flour (although tapioca flour or cornstarch will do as well). The reason for dissolving the starch into cool or cold water is that if you add the starch directly to hot dishes it clumps, and there are few things worse than having an enjoyable meal interrupted by biting into a lump of starch. Ick.

I also had the bottle of Bel Echo wine nearby.

I heated up a can of Campbell’s Cream of Chicken soup (along with the obligatory can of water to thin it out) and a teaspoon of white pepper in a sauce pan to use as my base, and at low heat slowly added the cheese, a clump at a time. Once the clump dissolved, I would add more, occasionally interspersing with a bit of the starch water or acid (lemon juice or white wine) until all my cheese was dissolved.

The cheese sauce for the casserole - cream of chicken soup, cheese, wine, and a bit of starch and lemon juice and white pepper

The cheese sauce for the casserole - cream of chicken soup, cheese, wine, and a bit of starch and lemon juice and white pepper

The acids, in the form of lemon juice and wine, as well as the starch, are needed to prevent the cheese sauce from clumping, although with the amount of cheese involved, a small bit of clumping seemed unavoidable. Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking” has a nice section on cooking with cheese (see pages 64-66), and describes how starches coat the protein patches and fat pockets of the cheese and keep them apart in order to stabilize cheese sauces and molten cheese. The lemon and wine also as a bit of tartness to complement the saltiness and fat of the molten aged cheese.

Cooking the chicken, a bit of it at a time

Cooking the chicken, a bit of it at a time

At the same time as I was making the cheese sauce, Linda was cooking the marinated chicken, which we had first drained in a colander to remove all the marinating liquid. And Krystyana had cut up and lightly steamed the broccoli in the microwave so it was barely cooked and still crisp.

We also preheated the oven to 375°F.

The idea was that all the ingredients would already be mostly cooked before being blended in the casserole dish. The baking of the casserole was intended only to finish the dish off and infuse the broccoli and chicken with some of the richness of the cheese

Once the sauce, broccoli, and chicken were all separately ready, we combined them into two casserole dishes (keep in mind that small portions appear to be something I have yet to master – and anyhow, I have a vacuum sealer and freezer, and I love leftovers), pouring the last bits of the cheese sauce over the top of the mixture.

On left, the broccoli, chicken and cheese sauce mixed, and on right after being topped with more cheese sauce

On left, the broccoli, chicken and cheese sauce mixed, and on right after being topped with more cheese sauce

Both dishes were then covered and put in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. After those 20 minutes we removed the lids and baked for another 15 minutes or so until we had a nice golden brown cheese crust on the surface.

The finished broccoli cheese chicken casserole

The finished broccoli cheese chicken casserole

And thus the broccoli cheese chicken casserole was fully cooked. And, I should add, hungrily devoured. The blend of cheeses, the seasoned chicken, and the texture and flavor of the broccoli was excellent, especially with the glass of Sauvignon Blanc still left in the wine bottle.

The gastronomic craving I had awoken with had been fully sated. And I had ample left over to satisfy future salty gooey cheesy cravings.