When I was growing up, my Mom would often cut up a whole chicken in the morning, plop it into a Crockpot with water and some aromatics and leave it to cook all day while she taught high school Spanish, drove me to dance class, shopped for provisions at Piggly Wiggly and went for a jog/gossip session with our next-door neighbor, Denise. Some evenings, that chicken and its broth would meet a bag of yellow Mahatma rice and peas, or maybe a frozen package of Mary Hill dumplings. But for a few years, Mom leaned hard into chicken poppy seed casserole.
Her recipe came from Denise, who inherited it from a certain Aunt Ruby of Douglas, Georgia. I can imagine Ruby hauling hot dishes of chicken poppy seed casserole to every potluck, funeral and baby shower in town. And while other Southern cooks might add a clove of garlic, a dash of Worcestershire or a handful of Parmesan, Ruby made the purest of versions with just chicken, cream of chicken soup, sour cream, poppy seeds, crushed Ritz crackers and an obscene amount of melted butter.
Ruby and Mom understood the dish’s dump-and-bake brilliance. But there was a limit. At a certain point, my father gently asked Mom to lay off the chicken poppy seed casserole. I doubt he provided an alternative suggestion, but she listened, regardless: We ate it less and less.
Last year, when the pandemic sapped the creativity from my cooking, I returned to chicken poppy seed casserole. It was as good as I remembered, but as a food writer, what struck me is how malleable the base recipe really is. The original casserole is essentially a mid-century cheat version of chicken fricassée, and through that lens, the world’s creamy, comforting chicken dishes — and there are many — inspired a whole new roster of weeknight meals.
Building from a ratio of three cups chicken, eight ounces of sour cream and one can of cream of chicken soup, I made totally inauthentic (but totally delicious) casserole odes to Hungarian chicken paprikash, Mexican pollo en crema de poblano and Peruvian aji de gallina. I switched up toppings, spices, garnishes and starch accouterment. I learned that, yes, you can eat a tortilla chip-topped casserole inside of a corn tortilla. In fact, you should!
There are very few rules here. Cooks can adjust the chicken ratio or use a rotisserie bird. Go ahead and pour on Aunt Ruby-esque quantities of butter, add a handful of blanched spinach or broccoli or throw on some cheese. Double the recipe to feed a crowd, or freeze individual portions in ramekins. The idea is to make home-cooked dinners easier and fun — and a lot more interesting than Aunt Ruby could have ever imagined.