My mother-in-law Mary Jo and I were alike in many ways. With dreams of becoming reporters, we majored in communications, got teaching certificates just in case that journalism thing didn't work out and had sons who share our love of writing. Sometimes, you just get lucky.
Although never one to interfere, Jo taught me a lot. It's fine to recycle last year's gift bags at Christmas. In fact, we expect it. Bob's favorite meal is stuffed round steak, black-eyed peas and chocolate pie. And Eleanor's Chicken & Rice Casserole makes any day better.
Jo first fixed this comfort-food classic for us in 1997. She and Bob's dad John stayed with Cole in Colleywood while Bob and I celebrated my 40th birthday in New York City. (I never would've guessed that 15 years later our one-and-only son would be living in the Big Apple, but that's another story.)
No one warned me but turning the big 4-0 was way more traumatic than hitting 30, 50 or any of the other milestones. So instead of feeling elated after our whirlwind trip, I came back depressed. Somehow, my always perceptive mother-in-law understood, welcomed us home with a round of hugs and improved the situation immediately by serving Eleanor's Chicken and Rice Casserole with a side of caring conversation.
Since then, I smile and think of her every time I fix what has become one of our family's favorite meals.
John and Jo with Cole years later
when he graduated from high school.
Although I'm not sure who created this yummy concoction, it's named after one of Jo's best girlfriends from her years living out west in Big Spring, TX where Bob grew up. My version stays pretty close to the original recipe but includes a little more zing.
Besides being downright delicious, this seven-ingredient treasure is super-fast and E-A-S-Y to prepare.
There's no chopping or dicing involved unless you choose ready-made rotisserie chicken or grill your own instead of using canned. I often go that route because this casserole tastes even better when made with Bob's fabulous grilled chicken, which works best shredded here. Otherwise, if you can open a can, you're home free.
Start by preparing Chicken Rice-A-Roni on the stovetop as the package directs. It includes rice and spices, everything you need except for water and a little butter. That takes about 25 minutes. When it's done, put the Rice-A-Roni in a 13" x 9" pan.
Then combine cream of chicken soup (or cream of mushroom, whichever's handy), sliced water chestnuts, chicken, green chilies and sour cream in a medium bowl.
Spoon that mixture over the rice layer, spreading it to cover the rice. Sprinkle on some shredded Pepper Jack cheese (that's Monterey Jack with Jalapenos) and bake about 25 minutes or until hot and bubbly.
Great for weeknights, Sunday lunch or pot luck, this simple, one-dish meal appeals to everyone. It's lightly seasoned, oozes with creamy goodness and has just enough kick (thanks to the peppers) to keep things interesting. Even better, it can't help but fill you with the feeling that things are looking up!
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Prepare the Rice-A-Roni as instructed on the box.
Spritz a 13" x 9" baking dish with a nonstick spray like Pam. Then add the cooked Rice-A-Roni.
Combine all the remaining ingredients except the cheese. Stir until blended. Place over rice mixture. Top with cheese.
Bake until mixture is bubbly and cheese is melted.
Enjoy with a side of sliced fresh tomatos and thick, crusty slices of warm French or multi-grain bread. Freeze any leftovers; they tend to lift your spirits even more when all you have to do is warm them up!
Here are some of our other favorite casseroles:
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