Throughout our lives, we cook for so many different reasons. Usually, it’s because we are hungry. But I, like other foodies, cook for many more reasons than mere survival. I cook because I’m bored, because I want to create something, or because I want to eat something I can’t afford to buy in a restaurant.
This past week, my vacation in the North of Canada was cut short, as my family and I had to go to Toronto because my grandmother had had a stroke. As I threw clothes haphazardly into a suitcase for the plane, I felt helpless and awkward. I was happy to be going closer to my family, but I felt like I would be in the way; simply another body crowded next to the hospital bed, waiting to see what happened. When your grandmother has 6 children who all now have their own spouses and children — places get crowded very easily.
My only solution was to throw food at the problem. I appointed myself head kitchen replacement, cooking not only for the random bodies that appeared each night for dinner, but preparing frozen meals for my grandfather to consume after we had left.
My normal cooking personality changed upon arrival. No longer was I happy to improvise, to see what I cooked as an approximation of an ever-evolving process. It became more like a science, as if my grandmother’s health and familial well-being depended upon flawless execution of a new shepherd’s pie recipe I had never tried before. Suggestions that I simply peel the pearl onions instead of parboiling them or that I add sour cream instead of cream to the mashed potatoes were met with a disdain and fretting extremely atypical of my normal approach in the kitchen.
I had never cooked this way before – out of desperation to be of use, as an outlet for my frustration and sadness, as solace. I found new comfort in lining up tin foil take-away containers to be filled up with bubbling stews to be reheated at a later date. I brainstormed lists of food easily frozen and reheated, and became frustrated at the lack of bake-able summer foods. I considered my grandfather’s palate, his health needs, what would remind him too much of my grandmother, what might be too exotic. It had to be perfect, and it was all I could do.
My grandmother was a career housewife, married in the 1950s. Her cuisine reigned supreme in all arenas, and God help anyone who suggested someone could cook something better than her. And yet, her style was so typical of her generation — casseroles involving crushed saltine toppings, garlic powder instead of actual chopped garlic. Roasts were served on Sundays, and ethnic food was Chicken Balls from the Chinese place down the road.
In her honour, I twisted a casserole recipe using an ingredient central to most 1950s North American Style cooking: a can of condensed Campbell’s Cream of Chicken Soup. It has all the necessary casserole ingredients: cheesy topping, over-steamed vegetables, sodium-filled sauce…but I gave it a global twist by adding a dash of curry powder. Yet considering that curry powder is a pretty generic take on something that may have been exotic 40 years ago, I thought it fitting.
Cheesy Curry Chicken Casserole
1lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts, chopped
500g broccoli florets
1 can condensed cream of chicken soup
2 tbsps lemon juice
1 tbsp generic curry powder
2 cups grated cheddar cheese
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350/180 degrees. Season the chicken with salt and pepper, brown in a sauté pan and set aside. Steam the broccoli florets and layer them in the bottom of a casserole dish, placing the chicken over top. In a medium bowl, mix together soup, lemon juice and curry powder. Spoon the sauce mixture over the chicken and broccoli, before covering with cheddar cheese. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the cheese is nice and brown in the centre. Serve with rice or egg noodles.