A few years ago I spent a week in Lexington, Kentucky visiting a friend. One night we had dinner at a place called Cheddar’s, which is a restaurant chain. Cheddar’s was started in Irving, Texas and is now spread all over the south. It hasn’t spread far up in the Midwest enough to have one in a Big City anywhere near my home town, but there was one in Lexington.
We have similar chains up here that I would describe as more upscale than a fast food restaurant, but not at the high-end in pricing by any means. Good family dining is what I’d call them. I really can’t remember what I had for dinner that evening but I do remember the side dish I ordered, broccoli rice casserole. It was the most wonderful way I’d ever eaten broccoli!
I wasn’t a huge broccoli fan until I left home and had it in college drenched in a melted cheese sauce almost every evening in my dorm cafeteria. I also learned to love cauliflower in the same way. We were in college, we watched our calories, but cheese sauce apparently didn’t count if it was eaten over a heaping pile of vegetables! Once I had a child of my own I taught him to eat both broccoli and cauliflower raw, cut up in smaller pieces, dipped in the popular Hidden Valley Buttermilk Ranch Dressing we all lived on in the 80s. Both of my kids easily learned to like most vegetables by first eating them raw, dipped in Ranch.
But I digress. I was enchanted with that small dish of broccoli rice casserole in Cheddar’s in Lexington. It would never have occurred to me to add rice and cheese sauce to broccoli and bake it until it was brown, bubbly and oh so good. I returned home and dreamt of that dish for weeks before finally doing an internet search for the ingredients to see if I could ever possibly hope to produce such a heavenly dish. And darned if I didn’t find a lot of recipes for that casserole online! Apparently it was popular down south. We northerners were definitely missing the boat on this tasty dish.
I tried 2 or 3 recipes before I hit on the right one that took me back to those wonderful bites in Kentucky. The recipes that had mayonnaise in the dish were odd; the idea of heated mayo is just kind of icky to me. I couldn’t get past that feeling as I tasted the first two recipes. They weren’t bad, just not good enough The solution to that was to try a recipe without mayonnaise.
I also wanted to use fresh broccoli, so that I could control the quality. Most recipes used frozen broccoli. With those preferences in mind I finally hit on a recipe that was so close I could almost hear the waitress with the southern accent asking me “Do you want another iced tea, sweetie?” They call you “sweetie” and “darlin” in Kentucky with an accent and in such a natural way you want to put them on your Christmas card list. That was one of the most charming parts of my visit. It made me feel like I was part of a southern family or something!
As an aside, there is a drive-thru attendant at one of our local burger places that always calls me “sweetie” and I always wonder if she’s southern. That’s just too friendly for up north here. She can’t be one of us originally. We don’t do “sweetie” unless it’s someone we’ve give birth to.
So my broccoli rice casserole adventure ended up with a successful outcome and it became one of our family standard side dishes on holidays for quite a few years. Green bean casserole was firmly behind us and broccoli casserole took its place. I have hauled it all over and made it at home and always receive many compliments. Frankly it’s a nice quick lunch by itself, having a good serving of veg and rice and crackers all mixed together. I think it’s the Ritz crackers that add that special touch to it all. Well that and all the cheese! Maybe it will become one of your holiday go to dishes as well.
This isn’t a quick, throw-together recipe. I’ll confess it is a little labor intensive. But it is totally worth the time it takes to prepare. I buy fresh broccoli and blanch it so that it will stay nice and bright green. You could use that frozen stuff to save time but you will sacrifice the freshness. I also cut up the stems into matchsticks and they are great in the dish.
I modified the recipe I started with by melting the second stick of butter, cubing the Velveeta, and stirring it in a pan until it is melted. Originally you just cubed the cheese and stirred it into the casserole. I ended up stirring it several times as it baked so that I didn’t end up with cheesy pockets. I liked a more uniform blend of cheese, rice, crackers, and broccoli. Melting the cheese before mixing seemed a wise move.
Originally the crackers were mixed with that second stick of melted butter and sprinkled over the top of the pan before baking. I like to stir them into the dish so they end up in every bite. Or rather, I enlist my P.S. (Plenty Strong hubby) to stir it for me as I did in the picture below.
Broccoli Rice Casserole
1 1/2 cups cooked rice (1 cup long grain rice cooked in 2 cups water)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks margarine; divided
1/2 cup onion; chopped
1 lb broccoli; cut into florets
1 can cheddar cheese soup
1 lb velveeta; cubed
1 package ritz crackers; crushed (one sleeve or stack or whatever you call it, not the whole box!)
Put 2 cups of cold water, 1 cup of long grain rice (not Minute rice) and 1/2 teaspoon salt into a small pan and bring to a boil. Turn heat to lowest setting, cover and set your timer for 15 minutes. When done, fluff with fork and pour into a large bowl. If you have more than 1 1 /2 cups rice, put it all in anyway. The recipe is very forgiving.
Cut broccoli into smaller florets and blanch in boiling water, then into cold water. Drain and add to large bowl.
Saute onion in 1 stick of margarine until translucent and tender. Add to bowl and return pan to heat.
Cube Velveeta into large chunks. Melt 1 stick of butter in pan and add Velveeta chunks, stirring often. It will stick and burn to the bottom of the pan if not closely watched!
Pour melted cheese mixture over ingredients in large bowl. Add canned soup to the bowl.
Break apart Ritz crackers into larger pieces, about 3-4 pieces per cracker. Add them to the large bowl of ingredients and mix well, spreading the cheese throughout the mixture.
Pour into a greased 13″ x 9″ dish. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour, stirring halfway through baking. I bake it 1 1/2 hours because I double the recipe and like it browned more.
I usually double the recipe and use:
2 cups rice cooked in 4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup onion
2 sticks butter (I don’t double the butter)
2 lbs broccoli
2 cans cheddar cheese soup
1 box Velveeta (2 lbs)
3 packages (sleeves) Ritz Crackers.
We like it leftover and the kids often take containers of it home after the holidays.
Tip: this can be made ahead of time and warmed in a crockpot later. You’d want to bake it about 15 minutes less in the oven and reheat at low for an hour or two. Any longer and it can get mushy. I’ve never totally cooked it in a crockpot but if anyone tries it, I’d appreciate a report back on timing!