Aunt Monica's Chicken Divan

>> Tuesday, June 23, 2015

My Aunt Monica is the first person I remember showing real joy when she was cooking. There are plenty of fine everyday cooks in my family, but my flamboyant Aunt Monica was the one humming while she cooked, and giggling and making us taste little pieces of everything before she put it into the recipe.

Chicken Divan is one of those quintessential 70s casseroles that might not be trendy right now but is still really awesome. It's forever tied to Aunt Monica in my mind because she used to make it in Grandma's kitchen if there was a crowd at the holidays.

My parents, the dog, and my sister would drive from the farm in Michigan to the big city of Waukegan in Illinois. When our station wagon ran up  I-94 highway past the big Magikist lips sign, we knew we were almost to Grandma's place.

old neon sign in Chicago, Magikist

Come to think of it, I have no idea what Magikist was trying to sell us when all the red lights flickered on.

It also just occurred to me that I can't imagine my grandma sharing her kitchen with anyone. Aunt Monica was a powerful force of nature, just like my grandma, and surely there were lightning strikes at some point.

Yet every holiday all the cousins would be shooed down to the rumpus room (yes, that's what it was, and I can describe the rumpus), and all the adults would settle in at the kitchen table with cigarettes and big 70s pipes and cocktails and catch up. Back then, my mom smoked only when she was around her mother, who made her nervous. It must have been a smoky kitchen!

Aunt Monica would announce when the casserole was ready and she would bring it out with a flourish and some sort of comment that has always made me imagine this was an exotic and fancy dish for special occasions. As it surely can be.

I'm pretty sure boneless skinless chicken breasts and cream of whatever soup were not in my Aunt's original recipe, but I've posted an easy version and a bit of an upscale version, depending on how you feel about cooking on a particular day.

I think it's also worth noting that this is one of a handful of recipes I've ever tried in which I actually don't mind broccoli, because I really don't like it.

Quick Chicken Divan

2 cups canned chicken, drained, or cubed chicken breast cooked until no longer pink
2 1/2 cups fresh or frozen broccoli florets 
1 can cream of chicken soup and 1/2 cup milk
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 1/2 cups cooked rice (try Minute Rice if you're in a hurry)
1 tsp dry mustard
1 slice of bread


Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 9x12 casserole dish.  Stir together all ingredients except bread, and pour into the casserole dish. Chop the bread into fine crumbs and sprinkle on top, then spray the crumbs with oil. Bake for 20 minutes, or until cooked through and bubbly.

Serves 4.

Gourmet Chicken Divan

For the Sauce

3 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
2 1/2 cups milk
1/3 cup sherry
1/2 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp curry powder
Salt and pepper to taste

For the Casserole

4 chicken thighs, skin removed
2 1/2 cups fresh or frozen broccoli florets
1 cup cooked rice
1 cup shredded cheddar
1 1/2 cups bread crumbs
2 tbsp butter


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x12 baking dish.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan, then stir in the flour. Cook and stir until the flour is browned, then pour in the milk. Whisk the sauce until smooth, then bring to a simmer. Cook 10 minutes, or until the sauce is thickened. Stir in the sherry, nutmeg, mustard, curry, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer gently for 5 minutes longer. Set aside.

In a large frying pan, brown the chicken pieces on all sides. Stir together broccoli, rice, and cheese, then spread into the casserole dish. Arrange the chicken over the top. Pour the milk sauce over the chicken. 

Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the casserole. Drizzle with the melted butter, then pop in the oven. Cook 25 minutes, or the chicken juices run clear when you pierce the pieces with a fork. 

Serves 4-6.

Extra note: if you're only feeding a few people and nobody likes leftovers, split the casserole in two and freeze one half in a small baking pan for another dinner when you're too busy to cook.


Red, White, and Blue Potato Salad

>> Friday, June 19, 2015

Red, White, and Blue Potato Salad

I've heard that Sweet Tomatoes restaurant makes a potato salad like this. That's a little disappointing because I thought Joe and I made up this recipe. Oh well. I'm extremely picky about potato salad (I really like my own recipe), but changing it up with red potatoes and blue cheese is pretty awesome, too.

If you happen to find some specialty blue potatoes at a Farmer's Market, throw them right in there. You can't get enough of the holiday colors around Independence Day, can you?


2 pounds of small red potatoes (use the new potatoes if you can find them, they are smaller than a golf ball)

1/2 cup chopped red onion
½ cup chopped celery
1/3 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tsp Coleman’s dry mustard
Salt and pepper to taste


Wash potatoes and cut them into bite-sized pieces. Put them in a covered bowl in the microwave and cook until tender (the mircrowave will preserve more of the pretty red color than if you boil them).

Cool in the refrigerator. Stir together the rest of the ingredients, then mix it into the potatoes. I like to serve my potato salad at room temperature, but if you like it col or you're worried about the mayonnaise problem, chill it until you're ready to serve.

Serves 4-6.


Grilled Pineapple with Basil-Tarragon Cream

>> Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Grilled Pineapple with Basil-Tarragon Cream

When you grill pineapple slices, their juices sizzle into caramel and they're richer, smokier. Pair it up with this bright and creamy sauce, and you have breakfast, a side dish, dessert, or all three, if you make enough. This also makes a tasty dip for a spread of fresh-cut fruits.

Basil-Tarragon Cream

By the way, I think people should use tarragon more often. I'm on a quest to bring it back into common use. It has a slight flowery licorice flavor, but if you don't like licorice, I'll emphasize that it's a slight hint of licorice or anise. Tarragon is popular in traditional French cooking. We used to grow a tarragon bush at our house, but now that we're apartment-dwellers there just isn't room. The dried leaves are fine, though a bit milder and mellower. Try using in in salad dressings or with poultry and fish, too.


1 cup plain fat free yogurt
1 tsp fresh tarragon, snipped
3 tsp fresh basil leaves, snipped
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tsp honey
1 large pineapple


About 1 hour before serving, stir together the yogurt, tarragon, basil, lemon zest, and honey. Allow to sit at room temperature until ready to serve.

Cut off the top and bottom of the pineapple, then cut off all the outside skin. Cut out any of the "eyes" of pith in the fruit. Cut out each section of fruit from top to bottom around the core (think of making a hexagonal stop-sign shape). Cut each section into 1-inch thick slices.

Heat the grill to medium-hot. Lay the slices on the grill, or place them on a grill pan and set it on the grill. Cook for 4-6 minutes on each side, or until the surface is turning golden brown and the fruit is heated through. Serve with a scoop of cream sauce on top.

If you have any leftovers, store the fruit and cream separately, so that the sauce doesn't get runny.

Makes 1 cup of sauce and about 30 slices of pineapple.


Triple Berry/Cream Shortcake Bars

>> Friday, June 12, 2015

Light Berry-Cream Shortcake Bars
Even better than strawberry shortcake!
When we took a cooking course in Tuscany, we learned how to make a traditional apricot tart with the super-fresh and aromatic apricots the villa owners grew on their Agriturismo farm. I still have to write and post that delectable recipe, but I've used the basic shortbread crust for a lot of tarts and dessert bars since then.

The beginning of June is prime strawberry season here in Chicago. When I was growing up in the country, my birthday always had fresh strawberries in it - usually ones I'd picked that morning. The smell of a perfectly ripe strawberry brings me back to those dewy mornings walking barefoot out to the strawberry patch...and my mom brewing fresh jam in the afternoon. Lovely.


For the Crust

1 cup butter
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour 
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp lemon zest

For the Bars

12 oz. light cream cheese
1 tbsp vanilla
1 tbsp vanilla
1 cup sliced strawberries
1 cup blueberries (or blackberries, or both!)
1 cup raspberries
1/3 cup Triple Sec liqueur


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy. Stir together the flour and baking powder. Slowly add it to the butter mixture while mixing. 

Grease a 9x11 baking pan and spread the dough on the bottom of the pan. Bake for 18-25 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool 15 minutes.
Whip the cream cheese, vanilla, and sugar together. Spread over the crust, then top with rows of berries. Drizzle the orange liqueur over the berries. Cut into squares and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes 15-18 bars.


Loaded Smashed Potato Casserole

>> Monday, June 8, 2015

Loaded Smashed Potato Casserole

If you're asked to bring a dish to the potluck or an Independence Day cookout, you couldn't do any better than these unbelievably decadent smashed potatoes. They've got everything you'd love on a baked potato. If I'm missing anything you like, just throw it in there. This is especially good if you top it with the french fried onions before cooking, but this is optional if you want to save your heart.

If you're feeling guilty afterward, take a long walk, watch the fireworks, and then come home and eat the leftovers. Repeat as often as necessary.


2 1/2 lbs russet or red-skinned potatoes
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup light sour cream
2 tbsp parsley, chopped
2 tsp garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste
2 stalks green onions, chopped
6 strips of bacon, cooked, chopped, and divided in half
1 cup low-fat shredded cheddar cheese, divided in half
2/3 cup french-fried onions (optional)


Scrub the potatoes and prick them with a fork. Boil or microwave the potatoes until tender. Drain (if boiled), then put in a large bowl. Add the butter and sour cream and mash until smooth. If you like, you can also mix them in a food processor or with a mixer.

Loaded Smashed Potato

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Oil a 9x12 casserole dish.

Stir the garlic, parsley, salt and pepper, and green onions into the potato mixture. Then add half of the bacon and cheese. Mix well. Spoon it into the casserole pan. 

Bake for 20 minutes, then pull it out and top with the remaining bacon, cheese, and french-fried onions. Bake for 10 more minutes, or until it is cooked through and the cheese is melted.

Serves 8-10.


Arugula, Fruit, and Nut Power Salad

>> Monday, June 1, 2015

Kale, Fruit, and Nut Power Salad

This powerhouse salad is like a party in a bowl - with all the colors, textures, and tastes, each bite is different and all of them are delicious! It's also full of healthy proteins like cheese, sunflower seeds, and edamame. Broccoli, spinach, and kale give you a bite of beta-carotene, and then there's a cornucopia of chopped fruits in this super-tossed salad.

Like I always say, pick the fruits and veggies that make you happy, or whatever looks best at the grocery store this week. Then dig into this satisfying salad for lunch - or dinner on a too-hot-to-cook night.

Chopped spinach for a super salad
Pile your salad bowl full of leafy greens!


1 1/2 cups frozen edamame
3 cups arugula, sliced
3 cups spinach, sliced
1 1/2 cups broccoli, shredded (check out your grocery store for the pre-shredded kind)
1 medium apple, chopped
1/2 cup sliced green onions
1 cup red grapes, halved
2/3 cup pomegranate seeds
2/3 cup sunflower seeds
2/3 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
Bottled raspberry vinaigrette dressing


Steam the edamame in the microwave for 5 minutes, then let cool. Toss together all ingredients. If you're not going to eat the salad right away, add the cheese and dressing right before serving.

Serves 4.

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