Elizabeth Passarella with her mother, Libba Schatz, and big sister Holland. Circa 1977
I should be too embarrassed to admit this—although here I am, doing it in a magazine—but when I tried to think of a dish of my mom’s that I make over and over in my own kitchen, I had to text my older sister to ask. “Hi! Quick question: What are the recipes of Mom’s that you make a lot? Salmon croquettes? Ha ha ha. [nervous face emoji] Text me back!” My sister is a better, more prolific cook than I am. She also lives in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, where she tends to make more classic Southern dishes than I do in New York City. (I blame not being able to easily find key ingredients, like grits.) But her response confirmed what I thought: “Hmm . . . I feel like Mom focuses on appetizers and desserts. I make her mushroom turnovers and fudge pie a lot.”
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The thing is, my dad was the more memorable cook in our family. He didn’t necessarily make dinner every night. My mom managed meatloaf and hamburgers and, yes, salmon croquettes—with the crunchy bone nuggets of canned salmon hidden inside—most evenings. But my dad made the cool meals. He would eat something once at a restaurant and re-create it at home, like the exotic huevos rancheros we had on a ski trip when I was probably 8 or 9 that he then made every Saturday morning until none of us could take it anymore. He would flambé bananas Foster at our kitchen island, letting one of us kids light the rum. The pork tenderloin with shallot-apricot sauce I make all the time? Dad’s. Leftover spaghetti frittata? Dad’s. Even a simple corn-and-scrambled egg dish that I now serve my kids . . . yep.
Still, what my sister and I both knew—and eventually came around to, once we talked—was that there was one dish that remains my mom’s signature: her chicken casserole. It’s not cool. You don’t light anything on fire. It’s really, really good, though. It is the 9-by-13 manifestation of one of my mom’s best, most saintly qualities. See, when I called her to make sure I had the most updated version (after a friend’s daughter catered a wedding in 2010 and served it “with a little white wine” in the mix, my mother quickly penciled in that change), she first said, “Oh, that is my all-time favorite. That’s a great recipe.” Then, she said, “If you double it, you can get four casseroles out of it. It freezes beautifully. I just took one to Joyce. And Dianne and Kay too.”
Joyce, Dianne, and Kay are three of my mother’s oldest friends. They’ve beaten cancer and lost husbands and lived with polio, and when things are lonely or rough or someone has heart surgery, my mom usually makes chicken casserole. It’s not rocket science; casseroles are the de facto response to illness or new babies. But she does it so effortlessly, so unselfishly. When I think about it, I can see her in the kitchen, assembling a chicken casserole at night after she has already cleaned up the kitchen once, licking the mayonnaise off a spatula. She takes them to people for no good reason, and if she’s driving down to her hometown of Ripley, Mississippi, to spend the night with her childhood best friend, she’ll call me from the road and mention, “Well, I’m bringing a chicken casserole so Pat doesn’t have to cook. That way all we have to do is open a bottle of Prosecco.”
I am part of a mom’s group in New York, and we organize meals when someone has a baby. It’s a more novel idea in Manhattan, especially when the new mom isn’t from a region accustomed to casserole culture. In fact, we once had a member who, knowing there were many Southerners in the group and it being her third baby, asked nicely if we could avoid bringing her “those dishes where you all pour a bunch of canned soups in.” So, for years, I didn’t. I avoided not-cool chicken casserole in favor of butternut squash enchiladas–or an extremely labor-intensive chicken chili that starts with dry beans. My mom knows better. She has a recipe that she can pull together in her sleep, so she can be a more promiscuous giver.
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Recently, I’ve come around to not-cool chicken casserole. The magic of the recipe, of any casserole to be honest, is that it’s consistently delicious whether you follow the recipe devoutly or not. The last time I made it, I left out the almonds—which I also picked out as a kid—and I didn’t have enough mayonnaise. I didn’t let the rice cool before I added it, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of “1 to 2 cups of crushed cornflakes” but went with two (as should you). It was exactly what I wanted; firm but not dry, perfectly well seasoned even though the recipe didn’t call for salt or pepper. I did not double it, because according to my mom, that requires “one of those big rotisserie chickens from Costco,” something that’s not easily acquired in my neighborhood. My husband had to go to two grocery stores just to find cream of mushroom soup. But next time, I will do what my mother would do and make extra for someone who needs a break from cooking—and appreciates a casserole with a little white wine mixed in. It freezes beautifully.
Serves 6 (serving size: 1 cup)
Active 10 min. | Total 50 min.
2 cups chopped cooked chicken
1 cup cooked white long-grain rice
1 (10.5-oz.) can cream of mushroom soup
1/4 cup unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup chopped celery (about 3 stalks)
4 oz. chopped fresh mushrooms
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. grated onion
1 cup crushed cornflakes cereal
1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Stir together chicken, rice, and soup in a large bowl. Set aside.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a medium skillet over medium-high. Add celery and mushrooms, and cook, stirring often, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add to chicken mixture. Stir in mayonnaise, chicken broth, lemon juice, and grated onion. Spoon mixture into an 11- x 7-inch baking dish.
3. Microwave remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a microwave-safe bowl on HIGH until melted, about 20 seconds. Toss together cornflakes, almonds, and melted butter in a medium bowl. Sprinkle over chicken mixture.
4. Bake in preheated oven until golden brown and bubbly, about 40 minutes. Serve immediately.