If you asked me what my favorite food was when I was a kid, my immediate answer would have been chicken divan. This easy casserole of chicken, broccoli, creamy sauce and crunchy cheesy crust was one of the first recipes I learned how to make with my mom, and it was also one of the first meals I cooked for my husband. From a real food perspective, however, chicken divan leaves a lot to be desired. My mom’s handwritten recipe dates at least from the early 1970’s, and most of the ingredients emphasize convenience over nutrition: shredded cheese, canned bread crumbs, oleo, Kraft salad dressing, frozen broccoli, and of course condensed cream of chicken soup.
(Back in the day—note the day-glo yellow of the sauce. Yummy!)
Over the last five or more years, I have been steadily removing ingredients like this (aside from the frozen broccoli, which is both handy and nutritionally viable) from my pantry, which has also meant that very few convenience casseroles now grace our table. The few that remain have been converted into more nourishing versions of themselves, a little repertoire that has gotten a lot of use now that I am back to feeding my casserole-loving dad. Oddly enough, chicken divan was one of the last casseroles I attempted to update fully.
The central ingredient in chicken divan is the cream of chicken soup, which, from the ingredients list, is really just super-thick creamy chicken gravy. I made mine with homemade chicken broth, whole milk, and a few basic herbs and spices, thickened with lots of flour and then pushed through a strainer to eliminate any lumps. It doesn’t look very appetizing, but then neither did the day-glo yellow glop in the can; at least now I don’t have to worry about questionably raised chicken miscellany, extra sodium and other preservatives. Next time I might try a richer custardy version thickened with cream and egg yolks.
The other half of the sauce for my mom’s chicken divan is mayonnaise, or more likely what we used when I was growing up, Miracle Whip. I’ve been grumbling over the mayonnaise at the store a lot lately, trying unsuccessfully to find something without soy or canola oil in it. My parents have been buying Vegenaise for the past few years, which contains soy protein even when made exclusively with expeller-pressed grapeseed oil; I personally hate the texture of the stuff, how ghastly pale it is and how it turns all watery when you try to make tuna salad. And now that I know my arms are strong enough to make mayo by hand in 10 minutes or less, using just an egg yolk and a cup of extra-virgin cold-pressed organic olive oil, I may stop trying to buy mayo at the store altogether. In any case, I had about 2/3 of a cup of richly yellow homemade aioli leftover from the previous night’s salmon dinner, most plain and a bit with herbs and garlic, so I only needed a few tablespoons of the jarred variety this time around.
As for the rest of the ingredients, I steamed fresh broccoli, sliced leftover roasted turkey (more on that tomorrow), topped the casserole with fresh frozen bread crumbs and hand-grated sharp Tillamook cheddar, and it came out looking and tasting better than the convenience version ever did! Yes, I served it over store-bought egg noodles this time around… I’m not Superwoman, you know!
My mom used to cook the chicken for this dish by boiling it (or occasionally using canned chicken), but I mostly only make it when I have some leftovers to use up.
20 oz broccoli, cut into florets and steamed until tender
2 C cooked and sliced chicken (the equivalent of about 3 breasts), or turkey
1 C mayo, preferably homemade
2 cans cream of chicken soup, or made from scratch (see below)
1 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp curry powder
1/2 C sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 C fresh or frozen bread crumbs, tossed with a tablespoon or so of melted butter or olive oil and pinches of salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 375F. Spread the cooked broccoli over the bottom of a 9×13 casserole dish and top with the sliced chicken. In a large bowl, stir together the cream of chicken soup, mayo, lemon juice and curry powder; pour over the chicken and broccoli and spread with a spoon to cover the edges. Top with cheese, then the seasoned bread crumbs. Bake at 375F for 25-35 minutes, until bubbling and browned on top. Serve over egg noodles or rice.
Condensed Cream of Chicken Soup
1 1/2 C chicken broth, preferably homemade
1/2 tsp poultry seasoning
1/4 tsp onion powder, or 1/2 C diced onions
1/4 tsp garlic powder, or 1 T minced garlic
1/8 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp parsley
dash of paprika
1 1/2 C milk
3/4 C all-purpose flour
In medium-sized saucepan, boil chicken broth, 1/2 cup of milk, and the seasonings for a minute or two (longer if using fresh onions or garlic).
In a measuring bowl, whisk together the remaining 1 cup of milk and flour. Add to boiling mixture and continue whisking briskly until mixture boils and thickens. Taste to adjust seasonings; puree with an immersion blender if desired or push through a sieve. I imagine this is best when made fresh, but could also be frozen if desired.
Source: Tammy’s Recipes.
Update 1/29/14: I made a quick grain-free version of a divan-stuffed baked potato for dinner tonight using some leftover parsnip-mushroom sauce from our Thanksgiving green bean casserole. The original recipe made extra sauce, and I froze it in silicone muffin cups in quarter-cup portions for later use. I combined the thawed sauce with a quarter-cup mayonnaise, a tablespoon of sour cream, 1/2 tsp curry powder, and 1/2 C or so of leftover roasted chicken. I split two baked potatoes and topped them with steamed broccoli, the divan mixture, and then some white cheddar cheese, and baked at 400F until the cheese was melted. This was delicious, quick, and gluten-free, and I didn’t even miss the breadcrumb topping. Theo tasted his first bite of potato, and then grabbed a massive handful of my divan topping before I had a chance to get him his own dinner.