Every now and then, I catch furtive visions of my life as a mother: dragging kids in and out of the mini-van I swore I’d never own; discovering peanut butter smeared in mysterious places; and casseroles. So. Many. Casseroles.

My own mother was the casserole queen. She sported a crown made of Pyrex and carried non-stick baking spray for a scepter. Any leftovers in our house, no matter the form in which they began, she would eventually transform into 9x13 pan of creamy, cheesy mystery. When I would ask her the question all mothers dread (“What’s for dinner?), her most common response was, “Don’t ask me what it’s called -- I made it up.”

My young brain interpreted her evasive reply to mean that I wouldn’t like it and to this day, I still have misgivings about any meal with "casserole" in the title, but when I step back, there is no reason to run and hide my fork. After all, “casserole” is basically a simpler way of expressing “giant pan of gooey, goodness.” By taking a new look at this classic dish and cleaning up the ingredients, a casserole can be a healthy, effective way to feed a family or to give yourself easy-to-reheat leftovers all week long.

This Cheesy Chicken Broccoli Rice Casserole is a lightened up version of one of the casserole dishes I remember my mom making the most often. It’s incredibly versatile and packs just about every healthy food group into a single pan. In one bite, you have lean protein, veggies, whole grains and dairy.

To cut on the prep and cook time, I used instant brown rice, but you could use long-cooking brown rice or even farro or quinoa. As a vegetarian option, the chicken can be replaced with white beans, and the broccoli can be substituted with any fresh or frozen vegetables you prefer or have on hand. I foresee a bell pepper cheesy chicken rice casserole happening later this summer and a sweet butternut squash version in the fall.

RECIPE:

Yield: Serves 6 (prep time: 30 minutes; Cook time: 25 minutes)

Ingredients

·       1 3/4 cups low sodium chicken broth

·       2 cups instant brown rice

·       1 pound broccoli florets, chopped into bite-sized pieces

·       1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

·       1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, chopped into bite-sized pieces

·       3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided

·       3/4 teaspoon garlic powder, divided

·       1/2 teaspoon black pepper, divided

·       2 tablespoons flour

·       2 cups milk, divided (I used skim)

·       3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

·       1/3 cup non-fat plain Greek yogurt

·       1 1/2 cups reduced-fat shredded cheddar cheese, divided (about 6 ounces)

Directions

  1. Place rack in center of oven and preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly coat a 9-inch square, deep baking dish or a 2-quart casserole dish with cooking spray.
  2. Bring chicken broth to a boil in a large pot, then add rice. Return to boil, add broccoli to the top of the pot, then cover, reduce heat to low, and let cook 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit, covered, for an additional 5 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, heat extra virgin olive oil in Dutch oven or large deep pot over medium-high heat. Add chicken, season with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Sauté until cooked through and no longer pink in the center, about 4 to 6 minutes, then remove to a plate and set aside. Being careful not to burn yourself, wipe the pot clean with a paper towel.
  4. Reduce heat to medium. In a small bowl or large measuring cup, whisk together the flour and 1/2 cup milk. Pour the mixture into the pot, then add remaining 11/2 cups milk. Cook mixture, stirring constantly until thickened, 7-10 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and whisk in Dijon, remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Once combined, stir in the Greek yogurt and 1 cup of the shredded cheese until smooth.
  5. Add the rice and broccoli mixture and the reserved chicken to with cheese sauce, stirring gently to coat. Spoon the mixture the prepared dish and top with remaining 1/2 cup cheese. Bake 25 minutes until hot and bubbly. Let stand 10 minutes, then serve.

Recipe notes:

This dish can be prepared up to the point of baking two days in advance. Let dish stand at room temperature for 30 minutes, then bake as directed. It can also be frozen for up to 3 months.

Erin Clarke is fearlessly dedicated to wholesome food that tastes incredible. On her blog, Well Plated by Erin, she shares approachable recipes for lightened-up comfort foods, healthier baked treats and seasonal eating. She passionately believes that family dinner can be special without being complicated and that one need not sacrifice taste to enjoy a balanced diet. The Huffington Post named her as a “Best Food Blog for Eating on a Budget,” she regularly conducts live cooking demonstrations, and her recipes and photography have been featured on "TODAY," Oprah, Parade, The Kitchn, Cosmopolitan, and more. When she's not making a mess in her Milwaukee kitchen, you'll catch her out running (awkwardly), traveling or sipping a margarita on her back porch.