Do you make a lot of casseroles? I wouldn't say that I do (although some appear in our permanent repertoire, namely these fantastic enchiladas that Mike makes). After today's recipe, I'm thinking about these homey baked dishes in a new way. The term "casserole" encompasses such a huge array of recipes, it's impossible not to find a few recipes that you love...and none of them need to involve cream of mushroom soup.
The idea for the chicken-pita casserole came from Martha Rose Shulman's turkey and rice casserole with yogurt topping in her New York Times' Recipes for Health column. She mentions in the head notes that this Middle Eastern dish often includes a layer of crisp pita. I loved that idea (and I always seem to have whole wheat pitas in the freezer), so I ran with it and altered the recipe to my style and available ingredients (chicken instead of turkey, brown rice instead of white, almonds instead of walnuts...I really played it fast and loose here).
Two big things to note: First, I made sure to season every component, from the pita, to the rice, to the pre-cooked chicken. Not just with salt and pepper, but with spices and sauteed onion and garlic. This guarantees a highly flavorful dish that tastes just as great the next day. And second, the yogurt topping is absolutely amazing. I was a little worried about how it would turn out. I used Fage brand lowfat plain Greek yogurt. I personally would not use fat free because the texture might suffer, and it's the incredible cheese-like texture you're going for. Somehow, the thick rich yogurt dries out a bit in the oven, solidifying and concentrating the tangy flavor. It is so good. I'm imagining all sorts of ways to use this discovery, starting with other casseroles and gratins.
More casseroles I love:
Turkey Lasagna with Eggplant and Spinach
Bobotie, an African sort of Shepherd's Pie with a custard top
Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
Chicken-Pita Casserole with Yogurt Topping
Loosely adapted from The New York Times
You can use any leftover shredded chicken or turkey for this casserole, and a rotisserie chicken would also work well. For the yogurt, I used lowfat Fage. Other brands should be fine, but I'd stay away from fat-free varieties. I liked the topping so much, I might use 2 1/2 to 3 cups of yogurt next time I make this.
2 (6-inch) whole wheat pitas (with pockets)
Chile powder, salt and pepper to taste
4 tsp olive oil (divided use)
1 large onion, chopped (divided)
4 cloves garlic, chopped (divided)
1 1/2 tsp ground allspice (divided)
1 tsp ground cinnamon (divided)
3 cups chicken broth (divided)
1 cup long-grain brown rice
1/3 cup dried currants
10 to 12 oz chicken breasts (about 2 large), poached and shredded (about 2 1/2 cups)
Chile powder to taste
1 clove garlic
2 cups lowfat Greek yogurt (do not use fat free)
2 Tbs lemon juice
1/3 cup slivered almonds
To make pita layer, preheat broiler to high, line a baking sheet with foil and coat with cooking spray. Cut pitas in half crosswise, then split the halves open (you should have 8 half circles total). Arrange on baking sheet in a single layer and mist with cooking spray. Sprinkle with chile powder, salt and pepper taste. Broiler until toasted and crisp, turning if necessary. Watch pita very carefully—they cook quickly and can burn in seconds! Arrange in a single layer in a 9 x 13-inch baking dish.
Make the filling: In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tsp of the oil on medium heat. Add about a quarter of the chopped onion and cook until tender; season with salt and pepper. Add half the garlic, 1/2 tsp of the allspice and 1/2 tsp of the cinnamon; add rice and cook, stirring often, 2 minutes. Add 2 cups of the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 50 minutes, or until rice is cooked through. Remove from heat, add the currants, and rest covered 10 minutes.
Heat remaining oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Add remaining onion and season with salt and pepper. Cook slowly (reduce heat if browning too quickly) until very tender and deep golden brown, about 12 minutes. Add remaining garlic and cook 1 minute. Add chicken, chile powder, salt and pepper to taste, and remaining allspice and cinnamon. Stir well and add 1/2 cup of broth. Simmer until reduced slightly, but still very moist. Remove from heat.
To make the topping, crush the garlic clove with the flat side of a knife and finely chop. Combine yogurt, garlic and lemon juice.
Assemble casserole: Douse pita layer with 1/4 cup of broth. Top with a layer of rice, then a layer of chicken. Douse chicken with remaining 1/4 cup broth. Top with yogurt mixture and sprinkle with almonds. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes, or until heated through. Yogurt will become firm, but should not bubble. Rest 5 minutes and serve.