Apologies for the long gap in posting. I was lucky enough to be cruising Alaska with Celebrity Cruises, seeing whales, hiking glaciers, and eating and drinking myself silly. (Seriously, do you have any idea how much they feed you on cruises? It’s amazing.) The worst part about vacation is that eventually you need to come back to reality. And, after a cruise, that reality includes the fact that you’ve eaten non-stop for a week and really need to go on a diet.
Most people hear “diet” and think, “there goes my enjoyment of food for the next few weeks.” But I’ve found that dieting can sometimes make my food even better. I have to get creative on how to keep calories low, flavor high, and vegetables plentiful, which makes me spend more time on meals. My first attempt at a diet dinner when I got back was a play on Food and Wine‘s Simplest Chicken-and-Leek Stew. To be fair, the recipe gave me a good head start—it was already pretty healthy to begin with. But I wanted to amp up the veggie content and also make it a one pot meal. I was both jet-lagged and craving home-cooking like crazy, and, in my world, nothing says comfort like a gooey, creamy casserole.
I kept the recipe very simple, but I made a few important changes. First, rather than cooking the chicken separately, I cooked it with the leeks and mushrooms already in the pot. I didsacrifice some of browning by doing this, but it allowed me to impart some aromatic flavors into the meat. It also saved me a little extra work, which was definitely a plus.
I also decided to add in some fresh spring vegetables to round out the meal and make sure all my essential food groups were covered. I love spring vegetables. Not only are they refreshing and welcome after a long winter, they are so sweet and mild that they can go with almost any flavor profile. I grabbed some fresh peas and some flat beans, but you can choose whatever you see at your vegetable stand or grocery store that looks good. In fact, I was initially thinking of using asparagus and fava beans, but the flat beans and peas were too fresh to resist.
Finally, I turned this into a casserole so I could get my home-comfort-food craving satisfied. Making a skillet casserole is a great trick for summer. Basically, you just have to reduce your portions down enough to fit into an oven-safe pan (I prefer coated cast iron because it makes it easier to clean at the end), and do most of your cooking stove top. It cuts down on oven time, which is great for when it’s hot, but it’s still a creamy, one pot meal that is easy to reheat for leftovers.
One quick note: the original recipe calls for mustard, and I completely forgot to add it in. I think it would be great with it (I’d use half Dijon and half grainy mustard to get those little pops of flavor in there), but my jet-lagged addled brain just missed that step and added in some red pepper flakes instead. It tasted amazing as it was, so it’s not necessary, but I’ll put a note in the recipe for a substitution if you want to give it a shot. It seems that jet-lag made me forget that there’s more than one angle to photograph food from, but that’s an issue for another day!
This meal is so warm and satisfying, you’ll feel like you aren’t even eating a diet-friendly dish—but each serving is only 450 calories, so you may even have some calories to spare for a nice glass of wine!
Simple Chicken and Leek Skillet Casserole
3 small leeks, white and light green parts thinly sliced
8 oz. mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 lb. chicken, cut into 3/4 inch cubes
2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 c. spinach, chopped into bite sized pieces
1/2 c. fresh peas
1 c. flat beans, sliced into 1/2 inch pieces
1/4 tsp. Trader Joe’s Everyday Seasoning (or equivalent spice blend)
1/4 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes OR 1 tsp. Dijon mustard + 1 tsp. grainy mustard
3 c. cooked rice
1/2 tsp. herbed poultry seasoning
1/4 c. Parmesan cheese
1 can low sodium chicken broth
2 Tbsp. corn starch
1 Tbsp. water
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat 1 tsp. of oil in a large, oven-safe skillet, over medium heat. Add leeks and cook until soft and golden, about 6 minutes. Add the mushrooms and continue cooking another 2-3 minutes, until the mushrooms begin to soften.
Add the chicken and cook for about 8 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through, adding the black pepper, red pepper flakes, and everyday season about halfway through (when the outside of the chicken has turned white). NOTE: If you’re using mustard, don’t add it in here! I’ll tell you when to add it later.
Once the chicken is cooked, add the flat beans and peas and cook for about 3 minutes just until the vegetables turn vibrant green. Add the spinach and cook until just wilted. Finally, add the rice and the remaining tsp. of oil to the skillet. Mix until all the ingredients are well combined, and then let it sit for a few moments over the heat to let the bottom of the rice brown slightly (it’s pretty much the same technique as was used in making fried rice). Remove from heat and let stand until your gravy is ready.
While the rest of the ingredients are cooking in the skillet, begin heating 1 1/2 cups of the broth in a small pot with the poultry seasoning. Mix 1 Tbsp. of the cornstarch with the 1 Tbsp. of water, and the remaining 1 Tbsp. of cornstarch with the remaining broth. When the broth is starting to simmer, add the cornstarch and water mixture and stir as it comes to a boil. Let the broth boil until it starts to thicken. If the broth is not thickening enough, begin adding the broth and cornstarch mixture. I used it all, but I like a nice thick gravy. Use your judgement as to how thick or how thin you like your gravy and casserole to be. Remove from heat and, if you’re using mustard, stir in the mustard.
Mix the gravy into the rice mixture until the rice, veggies, and chicken are well coated. Flatten the mixture into the bottom of the pan (just to make a nice, even top, no need to press it down) and sprinkle the cheese over the top in an even layer. Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes or until the cheese is golden brown and the edges of the dish are bubbling.
Wait 5 minutes before serving (difficult, I know). It makes it easier to serve if it has cooled slightly.