It has turned cold again in Mississippi. Okay, I know it’s not really cold, even though we had a chance of snow last night and it’s supposed to get down below freezing tonight. That’s nothing for most of the country, but for Mississippi, it seems like winter is knocking at our door, and it’s a good time for some comfort food.
That, and having most of the ingredients on hand, got me to make a Broccoli Casserole. Now, I know the traditional recipe probably calls for Cream of Mushroom soup or something, but that isn’t something we keep in the cupboard, so I decided to improvise. We’re trying to cut back on using canned foods, anyway — they tend to have too much salt and too high levels of BPA — so even though we don’t use much canned food, we try to find fresh alternatives whenever possible. That’s where this recipe comes in. I worked from memory and intuition to concoct a recipe that didn’t involve soup. My apologies in advance, since I tend to cook without measuring much, so there’s a little guess-work in the proportions.
Ingredients for 3-4 servings as a main dish:
Brown Rice (1 cup)
Water (2 cups)
1 clove Garlic
Broccoli (about 1 head, plus the stem, peeled and sliced)
Spinach (about a cup)
Olive oil (2 Tbs or so)
Four (1/4 cup)
Milk (a cup or so)
Buttermilk (a cup or two)
1/4 Lb Cheddar Cheese, grated
Salt and Pepper to taste
Pecans, ground for topping (or bread crumbs, if you prefer)
Cook your rice as directed. For Brown Rice, use 2 parts water for 1 part rice and simmer for 45 minutes on low until done. Or use leftover rice if you’ve got some (about 2 cups would be good).
Preheat oven to 350, 400, or 450 degrees (depending on how soon you want to eat!)
Sauté onion and garlic in olive oil. Add Broccoli stems and sauté, then add Broccoli florets. Let simmer briefly, then add 1/4 cup flour and stir so it mixes with the oil. Add a little extra oil if necessary to make the flour mix in. It should have a paste-like consistency.
Add a cup or so of milk to make a thick white sauce. Turn down the heat so the mixture is barely simmering, then add 1-2 cups of buttermilk to make a creamy white sauce. Be careful not to let the buttermilk get too hot, as it will separate if it comes close to a boil. That’s not the end of the world, but the consistency is nicer if you keep it under a boil as it mixes in the white sauce. Once it’s mixed together and begun to thicken up, turn off the heat.
Add the rice, egg, spinach, and most of the cheddar. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir together. Grease a 9×13″ baking pan (or whatever size you have that this mixture will fit in). I used butter, but you could use oil or skip this step. It only helps keep the casserole from sticking. Sprinkle remaining cheddar cheese and chopped nuts or breadcrumbs on top and bake for 20 minutes or so until the casserole begins to brown slightly on top and bubble.
Last night I served this with a side of steamed, buttered carrots and rutabaga (we had half of one that needed to be used, and it was very good with the carrots). It made a filling meal, and brought back memories of comfort food. Baking on a cold night helped warm the kitchen, as well.
Making the white sauce instead of using a can of soup was pretty easy, and the texture was perfect. You wouldn’t have to use buttermilk, if you don’t have it on hand, but we keep it around for making pancakes, and it gave the sauce a slightly tangy taste that I like. Substitute milk, if you don’t have the buttermilk. It hardly took me any more time to make the white sauce than it would to open a can of soup and add water until it was the right consistency. And by making it myself, I know more about what went into what I was eating.
That’s the best way to control your calories (which I never bother to count) and keep unwanted salt, sugar, fat, preservatives, and other chemicals from creeping into your diet without your knowledge. If you cook it yourself, you’re less likely to overdo it with salt, sugar, or fat, even if you do add some for flavor, and if what you cook is fresh, there’s no need for preservatives or chemicals from the canning process. Do wash your vegetables, and whenever possible, buy locally grown and/or organic food. It’s less likely to have been mistreated before you got it.
From the time I started the rice until the time I took the casserole out of the oven took about an hour and a half. Of course, I got to do other things for about half an hour while the rice was simmering, and you wouldn’t need any of that time if you use leftover rice (make a little extra next time!). Making the sauce and baking the casserole took 45-50 minutes. While the casserole was in the oven, I made the side dish and helped clean up. It’s a pretty easy recipe, and you could substitute just about any vegetables you want, if you don’t have broccoli or spinach. Usually there’s no spinach in broccoli casserole, anyway, I just added it for an extra vegetable. If it doesn’t turn out exactly the way mine did (or if mine doesn’t turn out the same next time), it will still be good.
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A note about the broccoli stems. The kind of broccoli casserole recipe I was thinking of often has water chestnuts in it. That’s also something that comes in a can and that we don’t keep in the pantry. One substitute is peeled broccoli stem, as used in this recipe. You can cut the stem below the florets, then cut off the tough bottom 1/8 inch or so that is dry. Use a knife to peel back the tough skin of the stem — often you can cut into the bottom and then pull most of the skin off. The upper part is usually tender enough to leave on, so use your judgement about how far up you want to peel. Slice this in thin slices (or thicker, if you really want the crispy texture of water chestnuts). This way you have less to throw away, and you don’t waste perfectly good food. I sautéd it a little longer than the tops.