Monday Night Martha: Casserole Time

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Maybe it's because the first cold snap struck the Valley of the Sun this past week, or because the World Series is playing on TV, but our minds and stomachs suddenly want something warm and gooey and familiar. And really, nothing says Monday night like ... casserole. Ah, casserole the humble dish of a multitude of church recreation rooms. With its reliance on a can of mushroom soup, or canned tuna fish or elbow macaroni noodles -- you remember it? But we're talking Martha here. And this chicken, leek and mushroom casserole was delicious.

Setting this recipe apart is the fact that it calls for fresh ingredients -- no cans of condensed soup here. Plus, we're big fans of leeks, and this recipe calls for one leek coarsely chopped, plus celery, and 10 oz. cremini mushrooms.

The recipe is simple enough. First you brown on both sides, 1 1/3 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breast seasoned with salt and pepper. Then you transfer the chicken to a plate. In the same pan you add oil, leek, celery and mushrooms, cooking over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes. Then you add a few tablespoons of flour and toss throughout the vegetables for a couple of minutes before adding sherry, chicken stock, milk and a bay leaf.

When the liquid begins to thicken after about 5 minutes, discard the bay leaf. Next, you take slices of dark dense multigrain bread and arrange them on the bottom of a casserole dish, spoon half of the vegetable mixture over the bread. Spread your cooked chicken breast, which has been cut into _ inch thick slices across the top, and spread the remaining vegetables and sauce over the chicken. Finally sprinkle with parsley and Parmesan cheese and toss in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes until bubbling and golden brown. It was a cinch.

We definitely recommend using dense bread so that it will hold up and not become soggy. Also, we substituted amber port for sherry because it's what we happened to have in the liquor cabinet. The substitution worked just fine. This dish had the reminiscent comfort of pan stuffing and the leftovers were just as good microwaved in the staff lounge the next day. It may be time to take back the casserole from its cheesy 1970's image.

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