Before reading Amy Thielen's recently released cookbook, The New Midwestern Table, the one Midwestern dish I had heard of was the hotdish. Perhaps this is cheating, since a hotdish is simply a casserole with a cute name, but I'll take it as a sign that at least my culinary vocabulary is regionally diverse. Thielen's chicken and wild rice hotdish is a fairly simple dish, elevated above the canned soup variety with a homemade mornay sauce filled with cream and aged cheese. Earthy wild rice is a welcome companion to the rich sauce, adding texture and color to the casserole. But it isn't completely scratch-made—Thielen tops the dish with a generous coating of crisp Ritz cracker crumbles.
Why I picked this recipe: Is anything more comforting and soul warming than a hot, bubbling chicken and rice casserole? I think not.
What worked: Everything from the sauce seasonings to the cracker topping was spot on.
What didn't: No problems here.
Suggested tweaks: As written, the hotdish is fairly simple. Sautéd mushrooms would be a great addition, as would diced carrots or baby peas. You could make this vegetarian by swapping out all of the chicken for mushrooms.
Reprinted with permission from The New Midwestern Table: 200 Heartland Recipes by Amy Thielen. Copyright 2013. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. Available wherever books are sold.
- 1/2 cup natural wild rice
- Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 dried bay leaf
- 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) salted butter, plus more, at room temperature, for the baking dish
- 2 leeks, white and green parts, cut into small dice (2 1/2 cups)
- 3 stalks celery, cut into small dice
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
- 3/4 cup chicken stock, low-sodium store-bought or homemade
- 3/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves, or 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh
- 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 2 cups roughly chopped cooked chicken meat
- 4 ounces aged Gouda or aged cheddar cheese, grated (1 1/2 cups)
- 2 cups coarsely ground buttery crackers, such as Ritz or Club (about 2 sleeves)
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Put the rice in a fine-mesh sieve and rinse it under cold running water, swishing the rice with your hand until the water runs clear. Transfer the rice to a medium bowl, and add water to cover. Pour off any black bits or floating kernels, pour the rice back into the sieve to drain, and then put it in a small saucepan. Add 1 1/4 cups water, a pinch of salt, and the bay leaf, and bring to a simmer. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to low. Steam for 25 minutes, or until the rice is tender and the water has evaporated.
(If liquid remains after the rice is done, drain it in a sieve.)
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375°F.
While the rice cooks, heat the butter in a large, high-sided skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks and celery, and season with 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Cook until tender, about 10 minutes.
Add the flour to the vegetables and stir until well combined with the butter. Pour in the milk and bring to a simmer, whisking to prevent any lumps. Add the cream, chicken stock, thyme, nutmeg, and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Simmer over low heat until the floury taste dissipates, about 5 minutes. Add the cooked chicken, wild rice (minus the bay leaf), and half of the cheese, and heat until the cheese melts.
Put the crushed crackers in a heavy plastic bag and add 1/4 teaspoon pepper and the olive oil. Shake to combine, and set aside.
Rub a 9 × 13-inch baking dish with a thin layer of soft butter. Pour the hotdish mixture into the dish and top with the remaining cheese. Bake for 25 minutes.
Pull the dish from the oven, sprinkle the cracker mixture evenly over the top, and bake until the crackers turn dark golden brown and the hotdish bubbles in the center, about 25 minutes. Serve immediately.
Notes: If you have leftover gravy on hand, by all means use it in place of the chicken stock in this recipe.
You can use a supermarket rotisserie chicken for the cooked chicken, but in that case, reduce the salt by 1/4 teaspoon.
If you have cooked wild rice on hand, use 2 cups for this recipe.