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News / Life / Clark County Life

Comforting casserole: Classic mom food casserole with tangy salsa verde tastes like home

Can't-fail recipe perfect way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo

By Monika Spykerman, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 1, 2024, 6:07am
3 Photos
With shredded chicken and a whole can of salsa verde, this casserole is a comforting weeknight meal.
With shredded chicken and a whole can of salsa verde, this casserole is a comforting weeknight meal. (Photos by Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

After several weeks of recipe wrecks (meh matzos, cayenne pepper doughnuts and Greek salad wraps that didn’t wrap), I was ready for something that couldn’t fail. I’m talking about the most basic of meals, the tried-and-true, handy-dandy rice-and-chicken casserole. Since Monday is Cinco de Mayo, I thought I’d do something with a little southern flair — as in 1,108 miles south, the distance from Vancouver to Tijuana — and add a creamy salsa verde sauce.

Of course, this isn’t an authentic Mexican dish by any stretch. It’s no more Mexican than a chimichanga, which was allegedly invented in Arizona, although the exact origins of this deep-fried burrito are somewhat murky. At any rate, chicken verde casserole is thoroughly Americanized, with Minute Rice, cottage cheese, mozzarella and canned shredded chicken. If you wanted to increase the yumminess, you could use shredded chicken from a rotisserie chicken. The only vaguely Mexican thing about it is the salsa verde, which is made from tomatillos and has a wonderful citrusy tang.

I was inspired by a recipe I found online at Simply Mama Cooks, simplymamacooks.com, with videos you can watch on youtube.com. I made a shopping list and went to the store, methodically cruising the aisles until I thought I had all the ingredients. I was so proud of myself because, even without checking my shopping list, I was sure I remembered every single item. It was a truly scary bit of circular reasoning: I make a shopping list so I won’t forget anything, decline to use it when it would be most helpful, and then get mad at myself for forgetting a crucial ingredient. Maybe I wanted to prove to myself that my memory is still sharp. Now, what were we talking about?

Anyway, when I got home, I realized I’d forgotten to buy Minute Rice, which is useful in this recipe because the rice softens while cooking, soaking up all the casserole’s tangy flavor. However, it turned out fine because I learned that, if you don’t have Minute Rice, you can use basmati or jasmine rice instead. You just have to replace room-temperature chicken broth with boiling hot broth and cover the casserole dish while cooking, so the rice gets properly steamed.

First, set your oven to 400 degrees and assemble your ingredients: Minute Rice (or basmati or jasmine rice), garlic, cumin, coriander, cilantro, fresh spinach, shredded chicken, cottage cheese, salsa verde, shredded cheese and a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

Spread 2 cups of Minute Rice in the bottom of the pan and mix in 1 teaspoon cumin and 1/2 teaspoon coriander, plus two or three minced garlic cloves. Pour one 14.5-ounce can of chicken or vegetable broth over the rice and stir until rice, broth and spices are all mixed together. (If using regular rice, heat broth to a rolling boil and pour over the rice.) Next, spread one 8-ounce container of baby spinach leaves atop the rice. It may seem like a lot of spinach but it will reduce drastically during cooking. Next, layer two drained 10-ounce cans of shredded chicken over the spinach or use 2 heaping cups of shredded chicken from a roast chicken.

Now get out your blender or food processor for the cream sauce: one 16-ounce container of cottage cheese along with one 16-ounce jar of salsa verde. Blend on high until smooth, then pour the sauce over the chicken. If you don’t have salsa verde, no worries! Just use regular ol’ red salsa. Finally, top the casserole with 2 cups of shredded Mexican blend cheese, mozzarella, cheddar or whatever else whacks your pinata.

If you’ve got Minute Rice, pop your casserole right into the oven for 30 minutes. It should emerge with browned, bubbly cheese and a little crisping around the edges. (Hoo-eee, do I love that crispy baked cheese. I’d say it’s essential for a good, homey casserole.) If you’ve got regular rice, cover the casserole with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil (yes, the cheese will stick to it — sorry about that) and return the casserole to the oven for another 10 minutes, give or take, until you’ve got that tasty, browned top.

This is not a pretty casserole to serve. It doesn’t have much visual appeal, although you can garnish it with a generous sprinkle of fresh cilantro, avocado and extra salsa. But you know what? That’s just fine. That’s what casserole is supposed to be. It’s homey. It’s unfussy. It’s unfancy. It’s what you place in the middle of a table for a family meal, and everyone digs in and gets a scoop or two. It tastes like home, like someone loves you and wants to nourish you but doesn’t need to impress you. It’s classic mom food.

That explains why I haven’t made a casserole since last September, when my daughter left for college. There wasn’t much point in having a meal for two people with a week’s worth of leftovers. But I have plans for these leftovers: I will give some to my friend — or rather, offer it to her in such a way that makes it seem dangerous to refuse. I’ll give some to my dad. He will cheerfully eat literally anything I cook. (Case in point: cayenne pepper doughnuts. Half a dozen, down the hatch.) The rest I’ll freeze for some evening when my husband seems poised to comment on the fact that we’ve had raisin bran for dinner for 11 nights in a row. Picky, picky.

Chicken Verde Casserole

2 cups Minute Rice or other long-grain white rice, like basmati or jasmine

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon coriander

2 heaping cups of shredded chicken (or two 10-ounce cans of shredded chicken, drained)

One 8-ounce bag spinach

One 16-ounce jar of salsa verde

One 16-ounce container of cottage cheese

2 cups shredded Mexican blend cheese, mozzarella or cheddar

One 14.5-ounce can chicken stock

Fresh cilantro for garnish

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Pour Minute Rice into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle spices and garlic over rice and pour in the chicken broth. Stir to combine. Add the whole bag of fresh spinach and layer over rice (don’t stir or combine). Layer shredded chicken over spinach. Blend the cottage cheese and salsa verde and pour over the chicken. Top with shredded cheese. Bake for 30 minutes or until cheese is brown and bubbly. If using jasmine or basmati rise, pour boiling hot chicken broth over rice, cover casserole with tin foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove tin foil and return to oven for 10 minutes or until cheese is browned. Cool and serve, garnishing with fresh cilantro. Keeps well for leftovers.