As far as moms go, I was lucky to snatch a great one. I’ve learned a huge amount from her about generosity and caring for others, speaking out about the things that are important to me, and unconditional love. However, with the exceptions of using a paring knife to cut the tops off of strawberries sans cutting board and lighting a match — two tasks that required a level of effort and terror for me to internalize that was probably wildly abnormal — cooking is, on the whole, not one of the things I was taught by my mother.
When asked about my childhood eating habits, I typically default to an ongoing joke that if Schwan’s didn’t exist, my sister and I might have starved. I’m not sure how far the phenomenon of Schwan’s has reached, so I’m going to elaborate: Schwan’s was essentially the 1990s version of what would evolve to become modern day food and meal delivery services. They had a big freezer truck that drove around suburban neighborhoods to drop off frozen ingredients and complete frozen meals. If Blue Apron, Green Bean Delivery, and Grubhub are Homo sapiens sapiens, Schwan’s is Homo erectus.
Schwan’s deliveries occurred biweekly throughout my youth; the dates were noted on our family calendar that hung in the dining room. The Schwan’s employee would always ring the bell at the door off of our garage, never the front door, and someone would announce loudly, “THE SCHWANMAN IS HERE!” We ordered products from him while crowded in the doorway using a magazine catalog and the desired items would move from his freezer truck into our upright freezer. In case you were wondering, Schwan’s is still alive and well today, delivering bags of frozen green beans and Gold ‘N’ Nugits to suburbanites everywhere.
But back to my mother and cooking. On any given day, if my mom had the choice of spending her afternoon in the kitchen or doing just about any other activity, she’d choose the other thing. However, despite her lacking adoration for culinary pursuits, there are a number of dishes she prepared during my childhood that I remain incredibly fond of. And being a Midwesterner, many of them are casseroles.
One of my favorites was a taco casserole with crumbled tortilla chips on top. The most memorable thing about this dish was the setting out of many little glass bowls on our breakfast bar, each containing a particular topping that could be spooned onto one’s square slice of casserole. The bowls were filled with diced tomatoes, chopped lettuce, green olives, shredded cheese, salsa, and sour cream.
Another favorite was “Delicious Chicken”, a recipe my mom found in a cookbook (Now You’re Cookin’!, 1990) compiled by a community group in our hometown. The organization was formed in 1953 to raise monies for the county hospital after a bond issue to support it was voted down; cookbook sales were a portion of their fundraising platform.
A few months ago, I was craving this casserole but wanted to ditch the cream of mushroom soup, store-bought mayo, and cornbread dressing thinking I could easily make all of those items myself or at least find substitutes for them. And I learned that I indeed could — not only that, but it was every bit as good as I remember minus the Pepperidge Farm cornbread dressing. That stuff is perfect and cannot be replicated. Mushroom soup ingredients and directions adapted from this recipe.
- 2 c. chicken, roughly chopped (tips for cooking a whole chicken here)
- 2 cans mushroom soup (ingredients and recipe below)
- 1 c. plain greek yogurt
- 1 c. chopped mushrooms (i used a mixture of blue oysters and portobellos, but any mushroom will do; you can also sub extra mushrooms, celery, and an extra jar of water chestnuts to make this vegetarian)
- 2 c. chopped celery
- 2 cans water chestnuts, sliced
- 1 c. breadcrumb topping (ingredients and recipe below)
- 4 tbsp. melted butter
Preheat oven to 350F. Make the condensed cream of mushroom soup. When the soup is finished, stir in the yogurt, mushrooms, celery, water chestnuts, and chicken. (This could also be done in a separate large bowl to allow for more space.) Spoon mixture into a 9 x 13in. pan and coat with breadcrumb topping. Bake for 45 minutes.
condensed mushroom soup ingredients:
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 1 1/3 c. vegetable or chicken stock (directions for making chicken stock here)
- 2/3 c. milk
- 1/3 c. all-purpose flour
- 1 c. chopped mushrooms (i used buttons here, but again, any mushroom will work)
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 2 minced garlic cloves
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1/8 tsp. celery seed
- 1/4 tsp. dried thyme
In a saucepan, melt butter and sauté onions and garlic until translucent. Pour vegetable or chicken stock into the saucepan and bring to a simmer. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk and flour. Pour milk and flour mixture slowly into the saucepan. Whisk in the salt, celery seed and dried thyme. Add the mushrooms and bring the mixture back to a simmer. Let bubble for ten minutes and continue stirring throughout. Adjust seasoning to taste, keeping in mind the soup should be a bit salty at this stage.
breadcrumb topping ingredients:
- 1 c. breadcrumbs (simple steps to make your own here)
- 1 tsp. rosemary
- 1/2 tsp. oregano
- 1/2 tsp. thyme
- 1/2 tsp. pepper
- 1/4 tsp. salt
Combine the breadcrumbs and spices in a small bowl and mix. Melt the butter and pour over breadcrumbs and spices, stirring to combine. If the mixture appears too dry, add another tbsp. of melted butter. Spread over top of the casserole.