A few months ago, my mother-in-law served her mother’s chicken fricassee recipe at our Friday family dinner, and I was hooked. I think I was pretty giddy. In fact, everyone at the table loved it so much that we ask her to make it every few weeks.
And then, one day, I realized—it was the closest thing to my beloved Southwest Baptist University college cafeteria poppy seed chicken that I’ve ever had. I immediately determined to make it myself, with poppy seeds, to see if I’d found a match for my old favorite cafeteria dish.
This Saturday evening, I got the chance to try.
The original recipe calls for cutting up a whole chicken, but I took a tip from my mother-in-law and used boneless skinless breasts instead, cutting them into serving-sized pieces. I am not a patient woman, and me and chickens have issues. I love them, bless the yummy birds, but they frustrate me.
The recipe is an easy one, calling for using a can of cream of mushroom soup to make gravy instead of using a roux of chicken broth and flour as do some fricassee recipes I’ve seen.
The recipe also called for celery, chopped onion, and pimientos. I didn’t have any celery on hand, so I added a little celery salt. I used a shallot instead of onion, since I love the sweet, mild taste of a shallot. Also, I used poppy seeds for interest instead of pimiento. (Who keeps pimientos on hand, anyway? Although I’ve had pimientos in my mother-in-law’s ham stromboli. Mmm … maybe I should get some.)
I also added a small amount of skim milk to the sauce before baking the chicken because the mixture didn’t look liquid-y enough to me, and I wanted a lot of gravy at the end of the cooking process. The addition of milk turned out to work well for my purposes.
For this recipe, you brown chicken pieces in seasoned flour, then bake them in a soup-based sauce for a long time—1 ½ to 2 hours—at low heat (300 degrees). I cooked the dish for the minimum suggested hour and a half.
When the timer dinged and I pulled the baking dish out of the oven, then pulled off the aluminum foil I used to cover it, the chicken was fall-apart tender, swimming in chicken flavored gravy, and peppered here and there with poppy seeds. Already getting happy with anticipation—yes, we’re eating chicken fricassee!—I served it with fluffy white rice and homemade oatmeal dinner rolls.
Chris pointed out to me that his friend whom we had over for dinner ate six pieces of chicken and finally just spooned gravy into his plate to eat it solo. I think that counts as a success, yes?
Furthermore, ladies and gentlemen, I can tell you that I have found my throwback poppy seed chicken. This chicken fricassee is as good as Mellers Cafeteria’s poppy seed chicken. And because it’s not made in mass quantities using unknown ingredients for hundreds of college students—and because I get to eat it now, whenever I want, not just every eight weeks or so when the cafeteria director sees fit to serve it—and because it’s not just a memory anymore—it’s better than Mellers’ poppy seed chicken.
I am satisfied.
Below is the recipe. If any of you are Southwest Baptist University alumni who ate and enjoyed Mellers Cafeteria poppy seed chicken back in the 1990s and early 2000s, you may want to try this.
From Grandma Kathy Nichols and “Granny D” Dorothy Weber
Revised by Sarah Nichols
4 lbs cut-up chicken or 4-6 boneless skinless chicken breasts
¼ cup chopped celery (I used a dash of celery salt)
¼ cup chopped onion (I used 1 shallot)
1 can cream of mushroom soup
¾ cup water (I also added about ¼ cup skim milk in order to produce more gravy)
Optional: 2 pimientos, chopped
Optional: poppy seed, about 3–4 dashes
- Cut chicken in serving pieces and rub pieces with seasoned flour (2/3 cup flour, 1 tsp salt, pepper). I put the seasoned flour in a small bowl and turned the breasts in the flour to coat.
- Brown in hot fat or oil in a pan big enough to hold all the chicken. I used olive oil. If you have a Dutch oven that can go both on the range and in the oven, use it. I don’t, so I used a sauté pan with a lid. This step took me approximately 10–12 minutes.
- Remove chicken. Cook celery and onion (or shallot) in fat/oil until golden.
- If you are using a Dutch oven, drain off excess fat. Add pimientos, soup, and water and Stir lightly to blend. Add chicken. If you are using a sauté pan for the browning step followed by a baking dish for the baking step, place the chicken in your baking dish, then add the browned celery and onions, soup, water and milk, and pimientos or poppy seeds.
- Cover the dish and bake in a preheated oven (300 degrees) until tender, about 1 ½–2 hours. Arrange on platter surrounding mound of hot fluffy rice.