I made a TV dinner tonight. Not as in I opened a package and cooked one, as in I made a recipe that consisted of things that were not a TV dinner, and it turned out to taste almost exactly like a TV dinner – specifically a Swanson’s Turkey Dinner with Gravy. You know, the one that has a big section of industrial turkey and gravy, a teeny serving of bread stuffing cubes that were hard as a rock if they were not submerged in the sauce as they cooked, whipped potatoes in the top left, peas and carrots on the top right, and a fruity cobbler-esque dessert in the middle that was hot as molten lava and inevitably had an escaped pea or carrot in it. That exact dinner, or at least the turkey and stuffing part, accidentally happened to me tonight. It was not entirely unpleasant, mind you, it was just a bit bizarre, like the moment you realize the tune of the ABC song is also “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” (Did I just blow your mind with that? Welcome to the Thunderdome.)
This coincidence was a happy accident to be sure, but it was also a bit of an epiphany. It made me realize that although we may dance around a particular flavor profile, we only rarely hit it on the head. It’s the same elusive thing we do when we try to recreate a famous family recipe. You use all the same ingredients as mom or Grandma or Uncle Larry, but it just doesn’t taste right. Then you go to their house, take one bite, and say “Yep. That’s it.” It’s not because they gave you the recipe wrong. It’s just because they’ve cooked it in the same pot or with the same water or with that same brand of soup or spice that they’ve been buying since you were a kid, so the profile is a perfect match to what’s etched in your memory. People search for years for that specific taste, and when you hit it, it’s like time travel. That’s what happened to me tonight. I wasn’t thinking about it or anticipating it, but when I took a bite of this casserole, I was 6, sitting at my laminate wood kitchen table in suburban New Jersey, trying to fish that one sad pea out of my cherry-apple lava dessert. At first, I was horrified – I mean for god’s sake, I went to culinary school and my sad freakin’ back of the box turkey/stuffing casserole tasted like a Swanson’s TV dinner – and then, I was a little proud. I made and fed to my family an exact taste of my childhood. Not kinda, not sorta, not “it’s almost as good as what my mom made.” I fed them the exact taste. Sure, some kids may get that moment with a roast chicken or a homemade birthday cake or something more exotic and classy, like ramen or pho or kugel, but for me, it was Swanson’s Turkey Dinner with Gravy. And you’d be hard pressed to find something more comforting – or more filled with sodium – than that.
AJ’s Turkey TV Dinner Casserole
1 14-ounce bag of dry, herb-flavored stuffing mix (I used Pepperidge Farm)
5 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped onion
2 ½ cups chicken broth (I used boxed low-sodium broth)
2 cups cooked chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 can cream of celery soup (Campbells, for me)
An additional ½ cup (or half an empty soup can) of chicken broth
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and spray a two-quart casserole dish with non-stick cooking spray.
In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add the celery and onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until soft but not brown. Add the 2¼ cups of chicken broth to the pan, and heat until boiling. Turn off heat, add the dry stuffing mix, stir to combine, then cover and let sit for 5 minutes.
While stuffing rests, in a medium bowl, combine condensed soup and ½ cup (or ½ can) chicken broth, and stir to combine. Stir in the cooked chicken.
Stir the stuffing to make sure it is fully hydrated, then take half the stuffing and spread it into a single layer in the casserole. Pour in the chicken and soup mixture and spread in an even layer over the stuffing. Scoop the remaining stuffing in generous spoonfuls and dot it over the top of the chicken. Cover with foil and bake for 20-25 minutes until hot. Remove foil and bake for an additional 5 minutes to brown and crisp top layer. Serve with pleasant childhood memories swimming between your ears and a stray pea, if desired.
Hi. I'm Amanda Dobbs.