It was hot. So hot that if I left my trowel in the sun for even a few moments you could have fried an egg on the metal blade. Blazing hot, but to think of it in those terms made you feel even hotter. I was collecting yet another bag of broken pottery (officially called coarse ware or cook pot ware, affectionately called crap ware) in my first archaeological field season in Turkey. I wasn’t exactly sure that I knew what I was doing, and I had no idea what to do with the stuff I was digging up, other than to record it properly. I hadn’t yet learned how to take the material remains and interpret those back into the lives of ancient people. Somewhere during the collection of that bag of boring, unpainted, undifferentiated pot sherds, I actually stopped to look at one.
It was the same earth-beige color as the rest. Roughly the same shape as the palm of my hand, and on the outside surface was a perfectly clear finger print preserved in the clay. The finger print of the woman or man who had actually made the pot whose surviving piece I now held. This print was not decorative, but was simply a movement recorded in clay; and I was hooked. For the first time, all the books on ancient history, all the poorly made films about ancient civilizations (Alexander with Colin Farrell… hours of my life I can never get back), all the museum displays, all of it finally was linked back to real people. There were real people who made real pots that quite often weren’t pretty, but I bet could be used to put together a delicious meal.
Those pot sherds became the focus of my life for a good five plus years. My dissertation was based on thousands of pot sherds, enough sherds to make your eyes cross and fingers ache just at the thought of analyzing them all. When I was writing up my findings back in Indiana, Dave surprised me with a present of a pottery class. It was something I’d always wanted to do, but had never made the time. Now that I was crunching numbers and trying to interpret ancient life from thousands upon thousands of pot sherds, I was finally going to see what went into making a pot. And I loved it! There is something magical about pulling the pottery up from the wheel and seeing it transform before you eyes and between your hands… even if it falls.
When we moved from Indiana to Iowa, I lost access to that studio and then Little Man came on the scene and I hadn’t been able to get back to pottery until now. I’d heard that through the city of Nanaimo there was access to a pottery studio where they also taught classes. So I tracked down a copy of the Nanaimo Parks, Recreation and Culture Activity Guide and found the information on the Bowen Park pottery studio (in the senior center at 500 Bowen Road). The best part was that they offered multiple days of open drop in time, where as long as you already know what you are doing you can come by for a small fee and use their facilities. I was hoping that the muscle memory of throwing pottery would come back, even though I hadn’t held clay for nearly three years. And it did… more or less.
With my reintroduction to the world of throwing pottery, I wanted to cook dinner in a casserole dish or pot that I’d made myself. I wanted to use my own pottery again, to feel the accomplishment of creating something useful not just pretty. I also wanted comfort food, which meant casserole, and the mother of all casseroles in our household is Chicken Taco Casserole.
Chicken Taco Casserole is not a light meal, and frankly I don’t recommend trying to lighten it. I’ve tried it with baked tortilla chips, and they just dissolved in an unappetizing mush. I’ve tried it with reduced fat canned soup (yes, you heard me right, this recipe calls for canned soup. Embrace the retro ingredient) and that was a mistake; total lack of flavor and an off putting texture. This is one of those go big or go home casseroles that we don’t make often, but we savor every delicious bite, scraping our plates (and the casserole dish) clean. And while you certainly don’t have to bake this in a ceramic casserole made by yourself or a local artisan, I have to tell you that it’s really great if you can. I don’t know why, but it just seems like things taste better when served in your own pottery, pottery made for you, or pottery made by a local artisan. It’s similar to how things you grow in your own garden taste better than those things you buy in a store. It’s powerful when you know the hands that made something, not just an extruder or mold press half way across the world. So if you get a chance, support your local potter. You’d be amazed at the craft and artistry that goes into what seems like a simple bowl or mug.
Chicken Taco Casserole
This casserole is the definition of family comfort food for me. It’s a family recipe that we’ve tweaked over the years and my parents make it differently than I do, and my brother has his own spin on it too. The ingredients below give a nicely spicy version, but in terms of full disclosure, I haven’t been able to make it with any spice since Little Man came along. We’re hoping to get him there some day, but for now I omit the chili flakes all together (unless I’m feeling risky and just give a sprinkle to the sauteing chicken), and instead of a half can of jalapenos, I use a full can of mild green chilies. The taste is still great, but I can’t wait for Little Man’s palate to develop to spicy foods… Mama misses her chilies.
And a quick warning… The first time my dad and I tried this casserole with the added chips and cheese on top… the topping never made it to the table. We pulled the delicious casserole out of the oven, called the rest of the family to dinner, and stood there in the kitchen eating the chips and cheese off of the top. By the time the rest of the family got there we’d smoothed out the top of the casserole and no one was the wiser… until now.
3 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless
Salt and Pepper
½ tsp. chili flakes
2 cans cream of mushroom soup
2 cans cream of chicken soup
½ small can of diced green chilies
½ small can of diced jalapenos
2 cups grated cheddar cheese
1 large bag of good quality tortilla chips
1. Preheat the oven to 350º Fahrenheit and prepare your favorite casserole dish by giving it a generous spray of cooking oil.
2. Heat a large, nonstick skillet over medium high heat and add a little oil. Sprinkle the chicken breasts with salt, pepper and half the chili flakes. Put the breasts into the hot pan spice side down. Then sprinkle the exposed side with salt, pepper and the remaining chili flakes. Cook until golden, then flip and sear again. Saute until the chicken is cooked through, about 10-12 minutes total.
3. In the meantime, in a large mixing bowl combine the soups, the chilies and a good sized cup of grated cheddar. Mix this all together and set it aside.
4. Once the chicken is cooked through, remove it to a plate and shred it into large strips. Once shredded add the chicken to the rest of the casserole mixture and stir to combine.
5. Now comes the fun part, layering. Grab a good sized handful of your chips and crush them into the bottom of your casserole. This should more or less just flatten them out a bit to make a good base. Then layer in approximately 1/3 of your casserole mixture, and smooth it out. Top this with another good handful of chips, and repeat the layers until you cap off the casserole with the last of the mixture. Be sure to reserve a good handful of chips and about 1/2 cup of grated cheddar for the topping later.
6. Put the casserole on a baking sheet (in case of boil overs) and slide the whole thing into your hot oven. Bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbly and hot. Pull the casserole out of the oven, top it with your reserved chips and cheese, and return it to the oven to just melt the cheese. Watch it like a hawk here in case the chips start to burn. Once the cheese is melted and the chips brown up on the tips, remove the casserole, let it sit for about 10 minutes (if you can hold off the savage hordes long enough) and then enjoy.
Click here for a printable version of the Chicken Taco Casserole recipe.