This is one of those recipes that any old-fashioned, self-respecting small town church cookbook would not be without! I discovered the dish on a recent trip to visit my family in Mississippi following my mother’s serious surgery and long hospital stay. Their refrigerator was stuffed full of soups and casseroles from friends and neighbors, prepared with love and delivered with best wishes for a speedy recovery.
One of those casseroles, Poppy Seed Chicken, smelled delicious, though it wasn’t vegan, so I couldn’t partake. But, once home, I set about to recreate it. If you aren’t terribly interested in how I went about the task of devising this vegan casserole, just skip to the recipe. But if you are, keep reading!
First, I found a PDF of a church cookbook online and printed the recipe. The sour cream was no problem, as prepared vegan substitutes are tasty and widely available.
The three (!) cans of Condensed Cream of Chicken Soup were another matter. However, again online, I found a recipe for a homemade substitute. It called for 3 tablespoons of butter (good grief!), 1 tablespoon of flour, 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup chicken broth. Basically, it resulted in a kind of very rich béchamel sauce, easily veganized with dairy-free margarine, unsweetened soymilk, and “no-chicken” broth. For my test, I prepared it as directed with my substitutions, but felt it would be too thin with the broth added, so I used only soymilk combined with “no-chicken” bouillon cubes. That worked great and I had plenty of sauce—about 1-1/2 cups—even without the additional 1-1/2 cups of liquid, but it was way too rich for a the vegan casserole that I had in mind.
So, for my second and final test, I used only 1 tablespoon of butter, upped the flour to 2 tablespoons, and upped the soymilk to 3/4 cup, along with the “no-chicken” bouillon cube. Perfect! Because I increased the soymilk to 3/4 cup, I only needed to double, instead of triple, this formula to have the 1-1/2 cups of sauce that I had determined was just right.
For the 4 cups of chicken, I substituted 2 packages of Morningstar Farms Meal Starters Chik’n Strips, cut into bite-size pieces, though you could certainly substitute prepared or homemade seitan. Other than that, I decreased the 1/2 cup melted butter called for by half to moisten the Ritz Cracker crumbs. And I combined those two ingredients rather than drizzling the butter over the top, as I wanted to insure that this vegan casserole had an even coating of the crumbs.
My version of this recipe is absolutely addicting and plenty rich! It is the ideal comfort food. But, let’s face it: there is not a lot that makes it healthful. The fix proved to be quick and simple: I merely served a scoop of the hot vegan casserole over a bed of fresh, raw baby spinach. The chewy bright green spinach set off the creamy white and gold casserole to perfection. In fact, the contrast actually made the casserole even more appealing than when eaten by itself. So dig in!
- 2 tablespoons dairy-free margarine
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour (I use white whole wheat because that’s what I keep on hand)
- 1-1/2 cups unsweetened soymilk
- 2 "no-chicken" vegan bouillon cubes (if they are the double size kind, be sure to use just one)
- ½ teaspoon celery seed (optional)
- 8 ounces vegan sour cream alternative
- 2-8 ounce packages Morningstar Farms Meal Starters Chick’n Strips, thawed, and cut into bite size pieces (or substitute 1 pound chicken-flavored seitan, purchased or homemade)
- 1 can sliced water chestnuts, drained
- ¼ cup dairy-free margarine, melted
- 6 to 7 ounces vegan buttery crackers (such as Late July or Ritz), crushed
- 2 teaspoons poppy seeds
- 3 to 4 cups fresh baby spinach leaves
- Preheat your oven to 350ºF and grease a 9 x 13-inch casserole dish.
- In a 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the 2 tablespoons of margarine. Whisk in the flour until well combined. Whisk in the soymilk and crushed bouillon cubes and cook, whisking continually, for 2 to 3 minutes or until thick. Lower the heat if sauce seems to be cooking too fast.
- Stir in celery seed, if using, and set aside to cool to room temperature.
- Whisk in the sour cream alternative.
- Sprinkle the chopped Chick’n Strips or seitan evenly over the bottom of the casserole dish. Cover with a layer of water chestnuts. Pour the sauce over the top and spread evenly to cover the chicken and water chestnuts.
- In a medium bowl, use a fork to combine the ¼ cup melted margarine with the Ritz Cracker crumbs. Sprinkle the crumbs evenly over the sauce followed by the poppy seeds.
- Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until bubbly.
- Serve a scoop of the casserole over a bed of about ½ cup fresh baby spinach.