It’s hard to remember life before broccoli cheese rice casserole. Or, B.B.C.R.C.E. (Before Broccoli Cheese Rice Casserole Era).
What did the Kim clan have to look forward to every Thanksgiving before the cheesy family-favorite side dish entered our lives? Stuffing, maybe. Green bean casserole. Macaroni and cheese. Ham in cola, a quirky recipe from Nigella Lawson that she picked up from the American South.
Certainly nothing from the Korean palate, neither rice nor kimchi on the table. This was the one day of the year when the adults sat back and the kids cooked American food. Our Thanksgivings were copied and pasted from the magazines and Food Network shows we binged as the children of immigrants in suburban Georgia.
These early dinners were fine, but when my cousin Becky brought over that cheesy casserole dish — still hot and wrapped in tinfoil — one fateful Thanksgiving years ago, our lives were forever changed.
In a group text recently, I asked my cousins if they knew where the recipe even came from.
“Not sure,” my brother Kevin wrote, “but it’s the first time I ever had rice and cheese together.”
“Pretty sure Aunt Anne learned it from the side of a Campbell’s soup can,” Becky said, to all of our surprise.
I felt a little cheated. I thought, surely my family’s favorite heirloom Thanksgiving dish would have a better origin story. Though, now that I think of it, the recipe that Aunt Anne taught Becky calls for a can of cream of chicken soup (and we’ve only ever used Campbell’s). So why did I think, after all these years, that her recipe was such a treasured family heirloom?
Maybe, as Alex Mayyasi reported for Gastro Obscura last February, people “love passing recipes off as their own.”
I guess a part of me wanted the narrative to be a more classic one: A group of Korean brothers and sisters immigrate to Atlanta in the 1980s and learn about Thanksgiving slowly through their friends at church and daycare and ceramics class. One aunt tastes the dish at her neighbor’s house, then asks for the recipe, and cooks it for her Korean family. And the rest is history.
Or maybe I’m just trying to make the story sound prettier than it is.
Realistically, Aunt Anne probably discovered it while making some slow-cooker dinner with cream of chicken soup, and she saved the can to try the casserole later.
Thankfully she did, because the one thing our turkey dinners had been missing B.B.C.R.C.E. was rice. Thanksgiving was the one day a year we didn’t have plain white rice on our table, which was always a point of contention for the adults (for whom a meal is never complete without the staple starch).
Because, the truth of the matter is: Short-grain white rice is the heart of the Korean table. In a way, Aunt Anne’s cheesy casserole serves as a special stand-in — an annual surrogate, if you will — for that bowl of rice on the fourth Thursday of November every year.
Maybe it’s okay, then, that Anne’s recipe started from the side of a can. Key word: started. The broccoli rice casserole recipe on Campbell’s site doesn’t include her first important step of sautéing onions and cubes of bread in butter. Also, she uses fluorescent-orange Velveeta (not jarred cheese sauce), frozen broccoli florets (not chopped broccoli), and leftover short-grain Korean white rice (not long-grain). In short, Aunt Anne’s recipe may have germinated from the can, but it grew into a beautiful beast of its own based on the ingredients she preferred.
And maybe what makes broccoli cheese rice casserole so special is not where it came from, but what happened to it after it entered our lives: how we always doubled it because it made for the best leftovers; how we built our Thanksgivings over the years around that one very filling, cheesy rice dish; and how, years later, when we atomized and moved away from home, we all still made it at our respective Friendsgivings all over the country.
Finally, maybe it was inevitable that I’ve tweaked my version over the years here in New York. For instance, I like to spread it out on a sheet pan because the crusty corners and sides of Aunt Anne’s casserole were my favorite bits. I also call for sharp cheddar instead of Velveeta (as much as I love the nostalgia factor of the latter), sour cream and milk instead of canned cream of chicken soup, and a crunchy panko topping for added texture.
My broccoli cheese rice casserole has more rice, as well, because for me that’s the best part. I guess I take after the adults.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
Serves: 4 to 6
1 stick unsalted butter
1 red onion, diced
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
4 ounces bread, such as brioche, cut into bite-size pieces
2 cups cooked, short-grain white rice
20 ounces frozen broccoli florets
8 ounces shredded sharp cheddar cheese
8 ounces sour cream
1 cup whole milk
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed
Olive oil, for greasing pan
1/4 cup panko bread crumbs
Parmesan, for grating over
1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
2. Melt the butter in a large nonstick skillet, then sauté onion with a pinch of salt and teaspoon of sugar for a good 15 to 20 minutes, until caramelized. Add bread to the buttery onions and sauté for another 10 minutes, until slightly toasted. Set aside.
3. In a very large bowl, toss together the rice, frozen broccoli, cheese, sour cream, milk, 2 teaspoons salt, and buttery onion-bread mixture until well mixed. Spread into an olive oil–greased half sheet pan, then sprinkle top with panko and a light dusting of Parmesan.
4. Bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbly and slightly browned at the edges.
5. Do Ahead: You can prep the casserole completely in advance and freeze it or fridge it. Just add a few minutes to the bake time when you’re ready to cook it.