One-Pan Wonders

From a Southern classic, many casseroles flow

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.

Photography by Hipolito Torres

CHICKEN POPPY SEED CASSEROLE
Serves 4
Chicken poppy seed casserole is, essentially, a quick version of old-fashioned chicken fricassée, a simmered, creamy poultry dish with as many variations as there are stars in the sky. To get your greens, add blanched spinach or broccoli.

3 c chopped, cooked chicken
8 oz sour cream
1 10.5-oz can cream of chicken soup
1 tbsp poppy seeds
1 sleeve buttery crackers, such as Ritz, crushed
1/4 c butter, melted*

Heat oven to 375°F. In a large bowl, combine chicken, sour cream, cream of chicken soup and poppyseeds. Pour into a 8×8-inch casserole dish, top with cracker crumbs and drizzle butter over the crackers. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes.
To freeze, leave off the topping and cover the casserole with plastic wrap and foil. Defrost in the refrigerator for eight hours before adding the topping and baking.

*Aunt Ruby would have poured 1/2 cup of butter on top of her 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.

CHICKEN-CHILI CASSEROLE
Serves 4
Inspired by Mexican pollo en crema de poblano, this casserole plays well with warmed corn tortillas and colorful garnishes like red onions, pickled jalapeños and cilantro for serving.

3 c chopped cook chicken
8 oz sour cream
1 10.5-oz can cream of chicken soup
2 4-oz cans green chiles, drained
1 1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsb granulated garlic
1/2 c chopped scallions
2 to 3 dashes hot sauce
2 1/2 c crushed tortilla chips
1 c shredded Monterey jack cheese

Heat oven to 375°F. In a large bowl, combine chicken, sour cream, cream of chicken soup, chiles, cumin, garlic, scallions and hot sauce. Pour into an 8×8-inch casserole dish, top with tortilla chips and cheese. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes.

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!

CHICKEN-AJI AMARILLO CASSEROLE
Serves 4
This casserole is a wink to aji de gallina, a Peruvian chicken stew that’s seasoned with mild aji amarillo peppers and traditionally served with potatoes, boiled eggs and black olives (try it with kalamata instead for a brinier flavor). You can buy aji amarillo paste online and in specialty markets.

3 c diced, cooked chicken
8 oz sour cream
1 10.5-oz can cream of chicken soup
4 tbs aji amarillo paste
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 c grated Parmesan
1 sleeve crushed saltine crackers
1/4 cup melted butter

Heat oven to 375°F. In a large bowl, combine chicken, sour cream, cream of chicken soup, aji amarillo paste, cumin and Parmesan. Pour mixture into an 8×8-inch casserole dish, top with saltines and drizzle butter over the crackers. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes.

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.

CHICKEN PAPRIKASH CASSEROLE
Serves 4
Fresh, high-quality paprika is essential for Hungarian chicken paprikash — and this casserole version, too. Feel free to incorporate hot paprika or smoked paprika to suit your family’s taste, and serve with buttered egg noodles.

5 tbsp butter
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp salt
1 tbs tomato paste
3 c chopped, cooked chicken
8 oz sour cream
1 10.5-oz can cream of chicken soup
3 tbs sweet Hungarian paprika
2 c croutons or cubed stale bread

Heat oven to 375°F. In a sauté pan on medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon butter and cook onions, stirring occasionally, until they just begin to brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Season with salt. Stir in tomato paste and cook 30 seconds more. In a large bowl, combine chicken, sour cream, cream of chicken soup, onion-tomato mixture and paprika. Pour into an 8×8-inch casserole dish, scatter croutons on top and drizzle butter over croutons. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes
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