There is a certain genre of food that is adored by people who are complected in the way that I am complected (very lightly): Food that is often loaded with a lot of dairy, be it sour cream, heavy cream, or cheese. Food that is beige, orange, or brown. Food that is at home on a TV tray. It’s comforting, if not super exciting, and sometimes nothing else will do. This cheesy chicken & rice casserole is such a food.
Is this dish a thinly veiled excuse to eat a mass of rice that’s been doused in a creamy cheese sauce? Yes, but it’s also an excuse to clean out your fridge of all the little odds and ends that need a warm and nurturing home. This does not have to be a chicken & rice casserole. It could be a broccoli & rice casserole, a ground pork sausage & rice casserole, even a tuna & rice casserole, if you are into that kind of thing. You can also combine any or all of the above – make a cheesy chicken & bacon & broccoli & rice casserole – this casserole holds a lot of stuff.
It starts with a bag of shredded cheese
Tossing shredded cheese with a little corn starch and melting the powdery strands into a can of evaporated milk produces a thick and gooey cheese sauce. It’s perfect for chip dipping or mixing up a batch of stovetop macaroni & cheese. Pre-shredded cheese comes pre-coated with starch (usually potato), and mixing a bag with a can of evaporated milk produces a slightly thinner sauce that is perfect for mixing with rice to create the base of this casserole.
All you need is a 12-ounce can of evaporated milk and 8 ounces of pre-shredded cheese, plus 4 cups of cooked rice and a few handfuls of whatever protein and vegetables you want to toss. From there you can complicate things as much as you like. I like to make the sauce and season it with a lot of Louisiana hot sauce, but you could can doctor it however you desire. (A little sautéed garlic and caramelized onions with some fresh nutmeg would be oh-so-nice.)
Once the sauce is made, stir in the rice, then add some cooked chicken (10 ounces is a good amount), and whatever frozen or cooked vegetables you have lying around. With the exception of frozen peas, corn, lima beans and the like, it’s a good idea to pre-cook your veg so they don’t give off too much water, plus it gives them some flavor. (Roasted broccoli brings so much more to the table than plain frozen broccoli.)
Let everything get nice and hot in the cheesy rice mixture, then spread it in a casserole dish, top with more cheese or breadcrumbs, and get it under the broiler to create that bubbling, browned top.
Easy Cheesy Chicken & Rice Casserole
- 12 ounces of evaporated milk (not sweetened condensed)
- 8 ounces pre-shredded cheese, plus more for the top (If you must grate your own cheese, toss the shreds with 1 teaspoon of cornstarch.)
- Hot sauce to taste, plus any other seasonings and spices you’d like in your cheesy base
- 4 cups cooked rice
- 10 ounces cooked chicken (or other cooked protein)
- A few handfuls of whatever vegetables you desire/need to get rid of
Add the milk and cheese to a small sauce pan and set it over medium heat. Season liberally with hot sauce, and add any other herbs and spices you want. Stir the cheese and milk mixture constantly as the cheese melts to prevent scorching. Once you have a smooth sauce, give it a taste and adjust your seasonings if needed.
Add the rice and stir to incorporate. Add the chicken, then any vegetables. Keep adding stuff until the mixture is scoopable, rather than soupy. Spread the mixture into a casserole dish, sprinkle more shredded cheese on top, and broil until browned and bubbly.