Mom’s casserole was called Chicken Pueblo because it called for two chunked chicken breasts and a can of green chilies.
“Pueblo,” being Spanish for town, was a sufficient signal to gringos like us that the chilies made this dish Mexican. Of course, it was only Mexican the way dumping curry powder over vegetables makes them Indian, but at the time this was not an important distinction compared to who would get the last serving, me or my brother.
Chicken Pueblo was good fresh from the oven, great microwaved, and transcendent forked straight from the dish after school, as cold as the walk home and solid where chilled cheese had fused rice, tomatoes, chilies and olives into sliceable, salty bites.
Comfort food, casserole style, is a sloppy layer cake of cheese, meat and carbs – the favorite food groups of children and the primary colors of a certain sort of American diet, the kind we know is killing us but we can’t quit.
“Pueblo” is an especially good name for a casserole not because it is a fake Mexican dish, but because calling a dish a “town” is a lovely metaphor for all the mixed-up ingredients layered one over the other into an irresistible whole.
That’s the kind of town I want to live in – a place where my neighbors are all sorts of people who believe all sorts of things and come from all sorts of places, but share a city, give it character, and remind me what it means to be neighborly when the news is as bad as the weather.
On my block we voted for Hillary, and we voted for Trump. We’re all following and feeling how that divide plays out in Congress, at airports and on social media from our opposing perspectives. But most of us still shovel each other’s sidewalks when it snows again.
It’s the pit of winter and the first couple of months of an administration that chills me to the bone, but I’m taking comfort in this: We don’t have to agree with our neighbors to be decent to them.
In person, on our shared block, we are a town.
I’ve never made Chicken Pueblo for my family – too much dairy and not enough vegetables for my grown-up tastes – but I still remember it as a template for what satisfies on dark days. I still want something saucy, something carby, something salty.
I want the recipe to make huge amounts of food so I always have an answer to “what’s there to eat?” if someone pops over, or if I am too comfortable in my knitting-and-Netflix nest to get up and cook.
Migas or chana masala or panang curry or matzo ball soup – that’s my jam now, the universal elements of comfort in flavors from all over. Something saucy, something carby, something salty, something warm.
Together, we’ll get through these dark days.
2 whole chicken breasts
1 onion, chopped
Cooked rice (the equivalent of about 1 1/2 to 2 cups dried)
2 (14.5-ounce) cans chopped tomatoes
1 small can tomato sauce
1 medium can sliced black olives
16 ounces light sour cream
1 small can chopped mild green chilies
3 cups jack cheese, grated
Cube chicken and cook well over medium heat in a saute pan with a little vegetable or olive oil. Add onion and cook until translucent.
Combine cooked rice, tomatoes, tomato sauce, and chicken-and-onion mixture in a bowl.
In a casserole dish, layer some of the rice mixture, olives, sour cream, chilies and cheese. Then repeat another one or two times. Bake at 350 for 1 hour or until heated through.
Kate Lebo is the author of “A Commonplace Book of Pie” and “Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour and Butter.” Visit her website at http://www.katelebo.com.
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