Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cheddar Cheese Chicken Curry - A Guilty Pleasure


We all have our secret guilty pleasures – something we like even though we know we “shouldn’t.”  When it comes to food, that usually means something that’s unhealthy or too déclassé for words.  Often both.   Dishes like:

  • Tuna noodle casserole (bonus points for corn-flake topping)
  • Cold leftover pizza for breakfast
  • Lipton California dip (the one made with dried onion soup mix and sour cream)
  • Mrs. Paul’s fish fillets (or fish sticks!) with cocktail sauce
  • Frito pie
  • Velveeta & Rotel queso dip 
  • Jell-O mold
  • Kraft's blue box macaroni and cheese

Yeah, some of those on are my list, and probably yours, too.

But my all-time favorite guilty pleasure is a recipe for leftover chicken curried in cheddar cheese sauce that I first tried over 40 years ago.

It’s not authentic.  It’s not healthy.  It requires a processed food product.  And it’s probably not something you want to tell your friends about.

But sample it once, and as its creator suggests, “you may find yourself having chicken often just so you can have leftover chicken often.  I can’t say that I’d blame you.”

About the Recipe's Source

 I came across this recipe in a slim book — really no more than a pamphlet.  It’s a book you’ve probably never heard of:  The Impoverished Students’ Book of Cookery, Drinkery, & Housekeepery by the late Jay F. Rosenberg, published in 1965.

Mr. Rosenberg developed the book while he was a student at Reed College in Oregon.  At that time, the author informs us, the typical cost of an on-campus meal plan was $50 a month – big money in those days – and the quality of the food was “absolutely abysmal.”  He wrote his book as a guide for students who wanted to eat better at half the cost.

Alas, the book is not longer in general distribution.  But reprints are available through the Reed College Bookstore.

Rosenberg’s book isn’t really a cookbook, although the handful of recipes it contains are quite good.  It’s more a lifestyle guide, a window into college off-campus living in the 1960’s.  So its value is more anthropological than gastronomical.  But the book offers several lessons that are useful in any kitchen:

  1. Good cooking often means attention to proper seasoning.  So if you’re forced to buy inexpensive ingredients, make sure your seasonings are top-notch.
  2. Once you know the basics of how a recipe works (tuna noodle casserole, say), you can riff on that to create new recipes.
  3. You must taste as you cook.  Always.
Reading this book when I was a young college student got me on the road to riffing in the kitchen and learning what it meant to season to taste and cook until done.

Not Just for Chicken

Chicken was really cheap in the 60’s, so it was standard fare in frugal households — and thus a common leftover. 

Leftovers usually present a challenge to the cook.  What can I do that’s new and different with the remains from last night’s dinner?  Undoubtedly, this dilemma was what inspired Rosenberg’s recipe.  It certainly wasn’t an attempt to recreate a classic Indian masala!

But even though chicken is the focus of the dish, it isn’t the only protein that works well.  Leftover turkey is another obvious choice — and in fact tastes better than chicken in this recipe.  Better still is leftover pork roast or pork chops.  Beef?  Not so much.

The Kitchen Riffs household likes turkey, so we always serve it on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  And we always save some of the leftovers for this recipe.  So if you still have any holiday turkey in the freezer, this is a great way to use it.

Campbell's Cheddar Cheese Soup

Recipe:  Cheddar Cheese Chicken Curry

(Adapted from Jay Rosenberg’s recipe for “”Leftover Chicken Curried in Cheese Sauce.”)

A primary ingredient for this recipe is Campbell’s condensed Cheddar Cheese Soup.  I have no idea what this soup tastes like when served “straight,” and really don’t want to find out.  In fact, I wonder how many people actually eat it that way.  Campbell’s announces on the can that the soup is “great for cooking,” so I suspect a lot of it gets used as an ingredient in other dishes — just like that other canned soup favorite, cream of mushroom.

As used in this recipe, the cheddar cheese soup is not fully diluted.  The idea is to create a thick sauce.  But this thickness makes the soup prone to scorching, so be careful not to simmer it over heat that’s too high.

The original recipe calls for using a can of cheddar cheese soup for each cup of cut-up leftover chicken.  All other measurements (and some of the ingredients) were left to the discretion of the cook.  In the version I present here, I’ve written the recipe to reflect my taste.  Feel free to make adjustments.

Each cup of leftovers + can of soup will serve 2 to 3 people.  This recipe is easy to scale up depending on the quantity of leftovers you have on hand.  It freezes well, but reheat it on low so you don’t risk scorching the curry.

If you are making a small quantity, you can cook this in a frying pan.  Otherwise, I recommend using something with high sides and a heavy bottom (for heat dispersal).  A Dutch oven works well.  The size pan you use depends on the quantity of leftovers you’re turning into curry.  I usually select something with a 10-inch bottom for 2 to 4 cups of leftovers. 


  • 3 tablespoons neutral oil (canola, vegetable)
  • 1 small to medium onion, diced (3/4 cup)
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 1 cup diced leftover meat (chicken, turkey, or pork
  • 1 ½ teaspoon (approximately) ground cumin
  • 1 ½ teaspoon (approximately) ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons (approximately) curry powder
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
  •  1 can cheddar cheese soup
  •  ½ cup milk (approximately; see note)
  • 3 - 4 dashes Worcestershire sauce
  • Cooked rice as accompaniment (about 2 cooked cups)

  1. Prep your onion, garlic, ginger, and chicken.
  2. Heat cooking utensil over medium heat; add oil when hot.
  3. Sauté onion, garlic, and ginger.  Season with salt and pepper.
  4. When softened (about 5 minutes) add meat and sauté for a minute to warm.
  5. Add cumin, coriander, curry powder, and cayenne pepper.  Cook for a minute until spices color the meat yellow.
  6. Add soup, milk, and Worcestershire sauce.  Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to low.  Stir fairly frequently — you want to avoid scorching.
  7. Taste after 5 minutes and add additional seasonings if necessary.  If you want a thinner sauce, add more milk at this point.
  8. The curry will be done after it simmers for about 15 minutes more (20 minutes total simmer time).  Serve over cooked rice.
I like the sauce to be this consistency

 Recipe Notes

  • You need to time the cooking of the rice so it will be finished when the curry is done.  White rice usually takes 20 minutes or so, brown rice 45 minutes or more.  Rice will hold in a covered pot for quite some time, so usually I start white rice about the time I begin step 3.  
  • Sautéing the spices briefly in step 5 allows them to “bloom” and infuse the meat with their flavor.
  • How much milk to add in step 6 depends in part on how thick or thin you want the sauce to be.  The original recipe calls for very little milk, which produces an extremely thick sauce.  I prefer my sauces to flow more.  I aim for the consistency of thick pancake batter.
  • If you’d like more yellow color in your curry, add ½ teaspoon of turmeric.  Turmeric has a flavor reminiscent of ginger and pepper, and is said to aid digestion.
  • The curry is better if made a day ahead.  This allows the flavor of the spices to better permeate the dish.  When reheating, do so on low heat and be careful not to scorch.  The sauce tends to thicken, so you may have to thin it out with milk or water.

    Our Little Secret

    When I was 18, I thought this dish was the height of sophistication.  It was ethnic!  It was spicy!  My mother didn’t even know what cumin was!  The recipe writer left it up to me to figure out what quantities of ingredients I wanted!  I was cooking without a net, baby.

    I was sooo cool.  Not.

    We were all so innocent back then.  Remember, in the 60’s things really were different, foodwise.  (If you weren’t around then, scroll down to the section in my profile post called The Great Food Awakening for a primer.)  Absolutely no one I knew then had the remotest clue what Indian food was about.  All we knew was that an exotic “spice” called curry was involved. 

    Now, of course, many of us not only sample the various branches of Indian cuisine in restaurants, we cook them at home too.  And we know that Cheddar Cheese Chicken Curry is light years removed from real Indian food.

    Well, so what?  It’s a delicious recipe, and one I crave at least a couple times a year.  Give it a try, and I’ll bet it’ll make your list of guilty pleasures, too.

    But that will be our little secret.


    Mary Bergfeld said...

    This looks wonderful, as does everything I've been able to browse on your sie. You asked about the beans not being drained. They help to thicken and they add additional flavor to the stew. There's so much in the pot that you really won't be able to taste it. If you wish you can drain. Have a great day. Blessings...Mary

    Kitchen Riffs said...

    Thanks for the feedback, Mary.

    Interesting point regarding how not draining canned beans helps to thicken a dish. I hadn't thought of that before.

    Anonymous said...

    Many thanks for posting this. I was one of Jay's students in the 1970's. He died of cancer a few years ago, and is very much missed.

    Kitchen Riffs said...

    Hi Anonymous, thanks for taking time to comment. When I was writing this post I of course Googled Jay Rosenberg, and was sorry to learn he had died relatively young. I never knew him, but somehow felt I did through his book - I love his sense of humor. His cookbook was an early influence for me, and opened my eyes to the fun and satisfaction of riffing in the kitchen. I'm glad you enjoyed the post - I really enjoyed writing it - and thanks again for the comment.

    Anonymous said...

    I foolishly tossed out my copy of the Impoverished Students' booklet many years ago. This is the recipe that I remember most fondly from the book. Thanks for posting it.

    Kitchen Riffs said...

    Hi Anonymous, you're welcome! Really this book is more of how to approach cooking than a book of recipes, but I'm awfully glad I still have my copy! Thanks for the comment.

    Anonymous said...

    Ah yes, Cheesy Curried Chicken/turkey over rice. One of my old favorites! Unfortunately my copy of "The Guide" is either in storage or in a box as yet unpacked....
    What I used to do with the curry powder was to add some, stir a bit and then taste; repeat until you think that "well, another dash and it'll be perfect." At that point, stop seasoning, lest it be too hot (just as with the cayenne, or when you're cooking Texas style HOT Chili, eh? ;-) ).
    Hummm. Planning to fix to fix spaghetti sauce tonight, but once it's in the slow cooker, I think I'll fix some Cheesy Curried Chicken and stick it in the fridge for tomorrow....

    Kitchen Riffs said...

    Hi Jim, isn't this a great recipe! We make it at least once a year. ;-) Thanks for the comment.

    William said...

    I was given this cook book in 1970 by the hostess at a restaurant I worked at. I was entering my freshman year at university. It served it for many years. I have since replaced the canned soup with a mornay sauce with cheddar cheese. This recipe takes me back to the time I was awakened from a very small world.

    Kitchen Riffs said...

    Hi William, isn't this a terrific dish? I've made it with mornay sauce, too, although I have a soft spot for that canned cheddar soup. :-) Thanks for the comment.

    RobG said...

    My Mom gave me this book when I left for graduate school in 1972, along with a Revere copper bottom sauce pan and a small Pyrex casserole dish. Somewhere along the line I lost my copy but bought another one on eBay. This is the only recipe I remember making from the book and I loved it. I still make it to this day a few times a year. I'm happy to see that others share my appreciation for this recipe. Thanks for highlighting it!

    Kitchen Riffs said...

    Hi RobG, isn't this a great recipe! One we make a time or two each year also. :-) Thanks for the comment.

    Anonymous said...

    Have you ever tried making this with tuna fish?

    Kitchen Riffs said...

    Hi Anonymous, never have. Interesting idea -- I can see where that might be tasty. :-) Thanks for the comment.