Thursday, March 29, 2007

"Crazy for Casseroles" by James Villas - David's Chicken, Ham, Artichoke and Pasta Casserole

Date I made this recipe: March 28, 2007

Crazy for Casseroles – 275 All-American Hot-Dish Classics by James Villas
Published by: The Harvard Common Press
ISBN: 1-55832-216-7
© 2003

Recipe: David’s Chicken, Ham, Artichoke, and Pasta Casserole – p. 151

People, you’re going to think I’m overly fixated on the weather in Minnesota, but if you would have suggested that I make a casserole this past Monday, I would have snorted.

You see, in typical Minnesota fashion, the weather, the past week or so, started warming up to the mid-fifties (somewhat unseasonable), then mid-sixties (a little more unseasonable), then mid-seventies (very unseasonable) until on Monday, March 26, we spiked to a record-breaking 81 degrees (ridiculously unseasonable). That’s right, 81 degrees in March. In Minnesota. I have two words: “Global. Warming.”

Well, global warming or not (my apologies, Mr. Gore), 81 degrees in March was really quite heavenly. Mind you, 45 degrees is enough to make us wear shorts in this state. At 81 degrees, we’re talking bathing suits – yee ha! (I used the collective "we" with regard to bathing suits. At minimum, this body needs a few more rounds in the tanning booth before "we" put on a bathing suit. But I digress...)

But then, as the weather in this state is wont to do, we started cruising back down to our normal altitude and temperatures and by Wednesday, the temperature was a respectable (for this time of year) 48 degrees. It also rained cats and dogs…well, maybe just dogs, and so it seemed like a good day to make a casserole.

Earlier in the winter (when one normally cooks a casserole to stay warm and comfortable) I leafed through today’s featured cookbook: Crazy for Casseroles. Now, I have no recollection of having put a piece of paper on the page I did to mark the place, but it turned out to be rather cosmic that I did as the recipe called for chicken and I had leftover chicken from the recipe the week before just waiting to be used.

And so I used it and we ate it, but people, I can’t say I was exactly crazy for this casserole. Part of it was that it tasted rather sweet to me, perhaps from the Parmesan cheese that was included, and part of it was that the veggies didn’t get as soft as they should have (I’m not a big fan of crunchy onions). I also had issues with the pasta. He called for Rigatoni but I thought a smaller pasta (or perhaps Rigatoni cut in half) would have been better.

But that’s just one woman’s opinion. My husband liked the dish and happily munched his way through a good portion of it. As for me, well, maybe my brain fried after the 81 degree weather, and I really wasn’t supposed to cook a casserole after all. Who knows?

What I do know is that other cookbooks by James Villas (and his mother, Martha Pearl) have yielded spectacular results (that will one day be chronicled in this blog) so I wouldn’t give up on the book just because of one recipe that I didn’t exactly rock my boat. We’ll just call this experiment my little “spring fling” and leave it at that.

David’s Chicken, Ham, Artichoke, and Pasta Casserole – serves 8
¼ cup olive oil
2 medium-size onion, minced
2 large celery ribs, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ cup dry white wine
2 cups milk
1 cup diced cooked ham
4 cups shredded cooked chicken
4 large artichoke hearts (cooked fresh or bottled,) quartered
½ cup sour cream (see Note below)
1 pound rigatoni, cooked according to package directions and drained
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup soft bread crumbs
2 tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 3- to 3 1/2 –quart casserole.

In a large heavy pot, heat the oil over low heat, add the onions, celery, garlic and nutmeg, and stir until softened, about 7 minutes. (Note: I’d go longer just to be on the safe side.) Sprinkle the flour over the top and stir 2 minutes longer. Add the wine, increase the heat to moderate, and cook for 3 minutes. Add the milk and stir until thickened, about 3 minutes. Add the ham, chicken, artichoke hearts, and sour cream and cook for 3 minutes. Add the pasta and cheese and toss until everything is well blended.

Transfer to the casserole, sprinkle the crumbs evenly over the top, drizzle the melted butter over the crumbs, and bake until bubbly, about 30 minutes.

Note: Kemps, a local producer of dairy products such as ice cream, butter, milk, etc., has earned my undying devotion by putting sour cream in a squeeze bottle. (Easy Squeeze Sour Cream) Show of hands out there: how many of you have felt as irritated as I have by having to buy a cup of sour cream only to use half of it in the recipe? This bottle eliminated all that (plus the mess of having to spoon it out) and has a decent “use by date” of May 12 so I have plenty of time to come up with a recipe using the remaining half. Thank you, Kemps!

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