|Broccoli noodle casserole with cheddar and Boca chicken. © Ryan Schierling|
Well, around our house it did. Ryan was busy innovating his riff on a Texas standard, when he looked up from his King Ranch in progress and asked... "So, when are you going to make your broccoli noodle casserole?" Um, you mean the one where I channel my inner 1950s housewife...?
One day, back in the aughts, I have a moment where I decide to get all retro and make a casserole. I mean... how hard can it be? Open a can of Campbell's and I'm half way there. I don't have a particular strategy in mind, just an inclination and the mandatory tin of Cream of Something soup – assemble, bake at 350-degrees, now you're cookin'.
It's a big casserole, so I share it with my neighbors. It gets raves, which throws me for a bit of a loop – it's very tasty, but come on... no one's supposed to get kudos for an old-fashioned casserole like this, right? Perhaps it's the richness of the sauce or the texture and tooth of the broccoli, though I suspect a bit of noodle casserole nostalgia is at play. Whatever the case, it is certainly classic comfort food and well worth the time it took to make. Recipe carefully documented for future reference.
I have since made this dish again and again – with nary a variation. My inner 1950s housewife can follow a recipe, and has no shame.
I am painfully aware that casseroles – especially ones involving noodles, chicken, broccoli and cheese – are almost obnoxiously ubiquitous. But a really good hot dish is all about great execution, and I'd like to believe that execution is what sets this recipe apart. I won't even demand bonus points for it being vegetarian.
The broccoli is fresh, not frozen, and not over-cooked. The noodles aren't mushy and the spiral shape holds the sauce beautifully. There is a sassy richness delivered by the sharp cheddar, but it's not overbearingly cheesy. The Boca chicken patties are tender and flavorful, and the light topping of cheese with the crisp crunch of the panko gives it a fancy finish.
These days I make my own "condensed" soup, so this may be made with, or without, the factory-canned variety. It keeps and reheats well, it can be baked then frozen for a rainy day, and nobody will laugh at you if you take this to a potluck or deliver it to a recuperating friend – I promise.
Broccoli Noodle Casserole
1 pound rotini (or fussilli) spiral pasta noodles
4 tablespoons olive oil
2/3 cup finely-chopped white onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large bunch fresh broccoli, chopped stems and florets (about 7 cups chopped)
1 recipe (below) Homemade Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup* (or 1 10-3/4-ounce can from store)
2 large eggs
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup chicken stock, or equivalent vegetarian bullion w/ water
1 to 1-1/2 cup milk
Black pepper (freshly-ground), to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
2-1/2 cups (10 ounces) grated sharp cheddar cheese (reserve 3/4 cup for top)
3 to 4 Boca breaded chicken patties, defrosted enough to cut, then 1/2" cubed
1/4 cup panko bread crumbs, tossed lightly with a drizzle of olive oil
Preheat oven to 350-degrees F.
Cook noodles in boiling water until just over half-done (about 1-2 minutes firmer than al dente). Drain and rinse immediately with cold water. Set aside.
In large skillet add olive oil, onion, broccoli, and garlic. Sauté over medium heat until onions are translucent and broccoli is bright green and just tender. Remove from heat.
In a very large mixing bowl, stir together eggs, mushroom soup, chicken broth, and sour cream. Add pepper.
Stir in sautéed vegetables, cooked noodles and cheese. Stir in 1 cup milk. Mix well. Gently stir in the cubed Boca chicken patties. Be sure all vegetables and noodles are well-coated with liquid – if necessary, add more milk to achieve a slightly-soupy consistency (it should make a sloshy sound when stirred).
Spread mixture into buttered 3 or 4 quart casserole dish and distribute evenly to create a smooth surface. Lightly top with reserved grated cheese and the panko bread crumbs.
Bake uncovered for 30-35 minutes, or until bubbling around edges. Allow to rest for a few minutes before serving.
*Homemade Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup
1/4 cup butter
1 1/2 cup minced fresh mushrooms
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup finely-chopped white onion
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Black pepper, freshly-ground
Melt butter in a small (2-quart) saucepan. Add minced mushrooms, garlic and onions and sauté until the onions are translucent and some of the water has evaporated off the mushrooms.
Add the all-purpose flour, stir into a paste on medium heat until the flour begins to cook a bit and the mixture bubbles. Gradually add the milk, stirring constantly until a sauce is formed. Add the Worcestershire sauce, salt (to taste) and give it several good cracks of black pepper.
Remove from heat and cool.
Makes approximately 12 ounces of "condensed" soup.