By: Rachel Sircy
If necessity is the mother of invention, then I think that insanity must be invention’s father. Below is a picture of a gluten free chicken pot pie casserole that was invented (sort of) by yours truly in an attempt to recreate a favorite dish from my childhood.
The inspiration for this concoction was a casserole that my mother used to make on busy weeknights and that my sisters and I always looked forward to. The casserole consisted of a chicken pot pie-like filling and it had stuffing on top instead of a pie crust. I am not sure where she got her recipe – probably The Pampered Chef. That was her main source for everything culinary in those days. In any case, it seemed easy enough for her and it was just delicious to me.
My version of it looks pretty good if I do say so myself. And it ought to look pretty good since it took me 3 ½ hours to make it. It took 3 ½ hours of mostly active cooking time even using rotisserie chicken as a short cut so that I didn’t have to cook my own chicken. What I would love to tell you is that I got carried away by my own creative genius and just lost track of time, but about halfway through I started to despair. My feet hurt and I wondered what kind of world it would be even if I did make it to the other side. Would the world be one whit bettered by the invention of a gluten free chicken pot pie casserole? Probably not. But here I was, every surface of the tiny galley kitchen in my tiny apartment was covered with food, measuring equipment, pots, pans, mixing bowls…
I had to press on and finish for my own sake. I don’t know how soon into the project I realized that I had bitten off (so to speak) more than I could chew. I think I told my husband pretty early on that he should go get us something to eat and that the baby could have a peanut butter sandwich for dinner.
You might wonder what would make such a simple-looking casserole dish take so long and cause a grown woman to despair of life and her aching feet. The answer to that question is precisely why I chose to tell this seemingly pointless story of domestic failure. The answer to that question is that living and cooking gluten free is HARD. A lot of gluten free literature will tell you that gluten free living doesn’t have to be hard and that you can have (almost) all your old favorites, just in new forms. And I appreciate what that literature is trying to do. It is trying to keep newly-diagnosed celiacs from curling up into the fetal position and weeping. Most newly diagnosed celiacs will do that at some point anyway – say – the first time a loved one eats a hot Krispy Kreme doughnut in front of you and says, “Wow, this is so good. I mean, like SO good. Do you want…oh no, you can’t have any. Sorry.”
It’s hard to live without the things that you love and have grown accustomed to. And the truth is, you just can’t have all your old favorites in new forms. No matter how many GF doughnuts you unwrap and thaw, you’re not going to get that same airy, fatty, perfectly textured doughnut that you once took for granted. And celiac disease can make you feel lost in the kitchen, even if you once knew your way around pretty well. All your old short cuts and easy substitutions are suddenly gone. For the first few years, it feels like you are reinventing the wheel every time you attempt to put any kind of a meal together. I used to have a small, but tried and true repertoire of dishes that I loved both to cook and eat. I loved inviting people over for dinner and feeling like I had nailed the meal. But when I got my diagnosis and the very, very long list of things that I could no longer eat, I panicked. It was as if I had suddenly lost my sight and was going to have to figure out how to navigate the world in total darkness. For my first few years, I clung desperately to a cartoonish picture of a healthy plate that a dietician had given me. She had said to take the starches and grains you know are safe and just insert them into this picture. So we had rice and boiled potatoes with every meal for longer than I care to remember. I used to really like rice and boiled potatoes. But I got to a place where I was eating just to survive. All the food that I loved seemed off limits to me. Even acceptable foods could not be cooked the way that I used to cook them, the way that I used to like them. So, eating became another chore to be checked off at the end of the day. Sometimes I even ate vitamin-fortified, gluten free cereal instead of having to chew my way through one more tasteless meal.
But, to any new celiac out there reading this, things get better. Not easier, but better. I made a pretty good casserole. It didn’t taste like Mom’s, but that is both bad and good. In some ways, it tasted better. My mom used to make this stuff using canned chicken, canned vegetables, canned cream of chicken soup and Stove Top stuffing. That’s what made it such a perfect dish for weeknights. You just open a box and a few cans and you’re already halfway done. That’s just not possible for a celiac. This recipe took me over 3 hours because I had to make gluten free stuffing from scratch for the casserole’s topping. I chopped chicken, potatoes, celery and carrots to go inside the casserole, I had to cook them down to the right consistency in a cream sauce that I made from scratch before assembling the casserole to go into the oven. Each of these tasks is time consuming, especially when you’re looking at two different recipes and using them as guideposts to make a completely new recipe. But, in the end, homemade stuffing beats any of the boxed stuff by a mile. And no can-o’-partially-congealed chicken soup could beat a homemade cream sauce. Mom’s stuff was cheap, easy and the processed food that bound her casserole together satisfied my cravings for fat and salt – which is something that my casserole didn’t quite do. My casserole was good, but in a real food sort of way. It didn’t give me that junk food high. But, there is something about eating real food that you worked hard for. This casserole of mine wasn’t the best thing I’ve ever eaten (neither was my mom’s version), but it was pretty good. More importantly than that though, it is something that I’m proud to have made. It took some time and attention to detail and some real nuttiness to come up with it in the first place, but it was all my own.
Celiac disease is not fun, but I am thankful that the damage it causes to a human body can be controlled without medicine. In fact, the damage can be reversed by a change in diet. It’s not a simple change, for sure, but it is something that an individual can control. Celiacs don’t have to rely on expensive medication or treatment by a specialist. Each celiac is in control of her own health. That feeling of self-sufficiency is one of the great gifts of celiac disease. It comes only with time and perseverance, as does anything worth having. I can tell you that I would never have left the rut of eating processed food or cooking without the aid of boxed and canned everything if I had not been forced to do so. If I hadn’t been forced out of that rut, I would never have known what it feels like to think up a dish and then figure out a way to create it on my own. That feeling, by the way, is awesome.
If I ever remember exactly what I did to make this casserole, I will share the recipe. Until then, get in your own kitchen (gluten free or not) and get in to a recipe that is over your head. It may turn out, or it may not. But the food isn’t the point. Independence is only achieved through practice, and it is well worth a few botched dinners.
PS: It may be a hammy suggestion, but the suggested reading for this post is Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken.