Casseroles. They very rarely photograph well, but they are the backbone of the comfort food family. Just about everyone I know grew up with some form of a creamy chicken and rice casserole, usually made with canned mushroom soup and covered in cheese or crumbs or both and equally usually devoid of vegetable contributions. There’s nothing wrong with those, and they certainly are good, but this version takes the idea a little further with the inclusion of brown rice, millet and lentils instead of plain white rice, a rich-tasting sauce made of nutrional yeast and artichokes and finished with perfectly cooked chicken and a crispy crumb layer. It’s creamy, crunchy, rich and light at the same time, comforting and easily adapted to several variations depending on what’s available.
I was inspired by the flavors common to spinach artichoke dip–creamy/cheesey base, spinach for color and artichokes for texture and a little sweetness to temper the salty cheese–and figured it would go well with chicken because everything goes well with chicken. This would probably also be quite good with the vegetarian chicken shreds, though I used plain old actual white meat chicken because that’s what we had in the freezer. Lose the chicken and use non-dairy milk and it’s vegan, lose the crumbs and it’s gluten-free. However you play with it it’s a great base for a creamy rice casserole dish that is mild enough to let artichoke shine through and rich enough to satisfy the need for comfort food, all without a lot of fat and it stretches a surprisingly small amount of chicken for such a large casserole without feeling like you’re missing out in the slightest.
I served this with a side of green peas and it was so good with them I might be tempted to sprinkle some on top of the casserole itself next time.
Whole Grain Chicken Artichoke Casserole
- 1 cup brown rice, uncooked
- 1/4 teaspoon salt or half a bouillon cube
- 1 boneless skinless chicken breast half (about half a pound or a little more)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon italian seasoning blend or herbes de provence
- 10-12 large garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 cup millet
- 1/3 cup flax meal (optional–I tend to stick it in everywhere, it just enhances the nuttiness of the brown rice)
- 2/3 to 3/4 cup nutrional yeast
- 2/3 cup milk (rice, soy, dairy, almond, whatever is fine)
- 2 tablespoons coarse ground mustard (optional)
- 10 oz bag frozen artichoke hearts (box is fine, just drain if frozen in a block of ice)
- 2 cups cooked green, brown or black lentils (yellow and red are too soft here)
- 6 oz shiitake mushrooms, sliced into strips (about 3 oz dried shiitakes rehydrated in hot water and drained)
- 10 oz frozen chopped spinach
- 1 1/4 cup panko crumbs
- cooking spray
- 1 1/2 tablespoon margarine or butter
First, make the rice, either in a rice cooker with two and a half cups of water or according to package directions on the stove. Add the salt or bouillon to the cooking water and set pot or cooker aside while you prep the chicken. About 10 minutes before the rice is done stir in the millet and flax if using and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
While the rice is cooking, heat a medium sized saucepan over medium-high heat with the olive oil. When oil is near smoking hot, sear the chicken breast on both sides quickly, about 30 seconds per side. Add 2 cups of water, garlic cloves and seasoning blend to the pot, reduce heat to low, cover pot and simmer for about 20 minutes until chicken is cooked through and garlic is soft. Remove chicken to a separate plate and shred with a fork.
To the pot add the yeast, milk and artichoke hearts and mustard if using, stirring to blend in the yeast and mustard. Taste sauce for seasoning, adding salt, pepper or more yeast to taste. Add the shredded chicken back to the pot and stir to coat, then remove from heat and set aside.
When your rice is cooked, grease a 9×13 casserole dish and add the rice and lentils, folding them together in the casserole to distribute evenly. Pat the rice into a fairly even layer and sprinkle the frozen spinach and chopped mushrooms over top. Scatter the chicken across next, then pour the remaining sauce evenly over the casserole. Place casserole in the oven uncovered and set the timer for 35 minutes.
While the casserole is baking, toast the panko crumbs either in a hot, dry skillet or in a toaster oven, stirring frequently until brown. When the panko crumbs are starting to color, you can either spray them with an olive oil cooking spray or melt some margarine or butter to mix in, making sure to thoroughly distribute in the toasting crumbs.
When buttered crumbs are deep, toasty golden brown, remove from heat. Fifteen minutes before the casserole is done, remove from the oven and top with the panko crumbs, pressing lightly with a spatula if needed, and return to oven for last 15 minutes of cooking.
When casserole is done, allow it to rest on the counter for at least 10 minutes before serving.