Between my parents, my six brothers, my sister and I, we were always gathering for something special in normal times: a graduation, a baptism, a cookout, even just pastries after Sunday Mass. But then the days and weeks of quarantine stretched darkly before us with nothing to celebrate, minor or major. The days all run together, differentiated by nothing except my parents’ choice of detective procedural for binge-watching.
Until this week, when we got the news: L. is coming home. My younger brother L. is a second lieutenant in the Marines, the second of my brothers to become an officer. If you aren’t, like me, an official ‘Marine Corps Sister’ with the keychain to prove it, here’s how it works: an officer-in-training goes to OCS, then TBS and then he gets his MOS. L. got 5-11, the HIMARS unit. He’s in the chute for a MEU. Exciting, I think?
Now that L.’s finished the first part of his training in Quantico, Virginia he ships out to Oklahoma for the summer then joins my older brother at Camp Pendleton in California. We get three days with him before he leaves for the rest of the year. I have visions of elaborately prepared meals — short ribs, whole roast chickens, a tableful of savory vegetable sides and homemade condiments so good he’ll never reach for the Frank’s. I’m ready to slaughter the fatted calf.
‘How about the braised brisket?,’ I suggest to my mother, ‘Or the spicy pork shoulder!’
‘Actually, L. has a special request,’ my mother responds. ‘Broccoli cheddar chicken casserole.’
What the hell! Here I am with my fancy cookbooks, ready to create a dish that will do numbers on Instagram, and L. wants a bland, gooey chicken bake that looks like it should be served with a side of Watergate salad. The recipe is written on a decaying piece of loose-leaf that has been ripped in half and stashed in a drawer. It contains instructions in my mother’s handwriting like, ‘2 big spoonfuls mayo’ and ‘should look like [illegible] paste’.
‘Of all the things I could’ve made you,’ I ask L. at the dinner table, ‘why would you request this?’
‘This is the first non-microwaved meal I’ve had in months,’ L. says. The quarantine on base means he and his classmates haven’t been eating in the cafeteria, and I have to admit, ‘takeout from the chow hall’ sounds pretty unappealing. He’s also been subsisting on MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) during field exercises. The flavors of these include inexplicable formulations like Vegetable Crumbles with Pasta in Taco Sauce and Rib-Shaped BBQ Pork Patty. Considering these are non-perishable, a distressing number of them have ‘Creamy’ in the title. One is called, simply and ominously, Chicken Chunks.
‘They’re high-calorie meals,’ L. explains, ‘designed to — well, they make them that way for a reason.’ Say no more.
So L. has been eating a combination of freeze-dried astronaut food and microwaved chimichangas since quarantine began. In this context, broccoli cheddar chicken casserole takes on a whole new glow. It’s the ultimate in homemade comfort food — rich, salty, hot and unchallengingly shovel-able, spoonful after spoonful. We serve it with a side of wild rice, but that’s just for appearances. The truth is, broccoli cheddar chicken casserole needs no accompaniment and calls for no improvements: it’s a classic home-cooked meal. It doesn’t taste like it was made in a restaurant or by an Instagram chef, but it does taste like it was made by your mom. Sometimes that’s exactly what you need.
2 cans Campbell’s condensed cheddar cheese soup
1 cup milk
2 big spoonfuls of mayonnaise
Juice of 1 whole lemon
1lb bag of frozen broccoli florets, steamed or microwaved according to package instructions
2 tablespoons shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup seasoned bread crumbs
1-1½ lb cooked chicken breast, cut into 1-inch cubes
Hot water, ½ cup
An inch of fresh ginger, grated or chopped thinly
Make the sauce: combine the soup, mayo, milk and lemon juice in a medium saucepan and heat through. The result will be more pasty than saucy, but that’s OK.
Make the casserole: layer the cooked broccoli, cooked chicken and sauce in a 9 x 13-inch casserole dish, then top with shredded cheese and bread crumbs. Bake at 375˚F for 45 minutes, or until golden brown.