When I moved to Iowa in 1994, supermarkets didn't carry things like whole cumin or chile peppers. It was, frankly, difficult to find high-quality garlic in small towns, which drove the part of me that had just moved away from the best Italian-American food in the country absolutely u'pazzu.
I was stunned by the stick-to-your-ribs-ness of Midwestern food, particularly winter food when fresh vegetables were trucked in from California in various states of mummification. The first time I went to a church basement supper, I boggled at the varieties of casseroles available. Sure, someone would bring “fruit salad” (which is what rural Minnesotans call ambrosia) and someone else would bring cole slaw, but by and large the rule was covered dishes.
As I lived there longer, I learned that certain types of casseroles (called “hotdish” in northern Iowa and most of Minnesota) were for certain events. Green bean hotdish was an accompaniment to Thanksgiving; wild rice hotdish went with roast meats such as goose; Tater Tot™ hotdish (with hamburger and canned green beans) was often funeral food.
One everyday hotdish, however, became my favorite: a chicken Divan recipe that was simplified to remove some of its ingredients. It's pure Minnesota farm cuisine at its most comforting: cream soup, tender chicken, and fresh broccoli. At the request of Philly Girl, a commenter on my confessional post, here is my recipe for chicken breast hotdish. Judge me all you want; this is what I cook when my wife isn't around.
2 Tbsp. butter
1 chicken breast
1 can Campbell's cream of celery soup
1 Campbell's can full of whole milk
1 small head broccoli
Salt and pepper
Cooked white long-grain rice (Uncle Ben's Converted is fine)
1. Cut the broccoli into florets; peel and slice the broccoli stems. (Midwesterners waste nothing.)
2. Cut the chicken into 1-inch cubes, then salt and pepper the cubes. Be careful with the pepper; you don't want it to be too spicy.
3. Melt the butter in a deep pan, then fry the chicken until just barely brown around the edges.
4. Add the soup, milk and broccoli; bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, cover and cook 20 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding milk if needed to keep the gravy at the right consistency.
5. Adjust the salt and pepper. Remember, spices are evil!
6. Serve atop buttered rice.
If company is coming and you really need to put on the Ritz, or if you're taking it to the covered dish supper at church, you can brown off the chicken, then put two cups of uncooked rice in the bottom of a casserole; top with the chicken, broccoli, and TWO cans soup and THREE cans milk, big spender. Bake at 400°F until bubbly; top with a mixture of breadcrumbs and grated cheddar cheese and run under the broiler.
Supper's ready! Make sure ya take off those dirty boots oot in the mud room and warsh up, OK?