Brown rice gratin, an adaptation

I used to make this thing I called Cheesy Rice Casserole for the kids. It involved cooked rice mixed with some beaten eggs and milk, grated cheese, and whatever veggies I had laying around all spread into a pan, covered with more cheese and baked until bubbly. It sounded like a good idea in theory. A nice vegetarian alternative to Mac and cheese and a new way to use rice, which the kids love.
It just....wasn't very good. They never really ate it, at all. But for some reason I would not give up on this recipe. I was sure there was something to be salvaged from it, some way to make something healthy and tasty that the kids would like.

Then came our March in service staff training. Jed (our fearless program director and great lover of lunch) brought me Sarah's copy of the Smitten Kitchen cookbook and suggested I look through it for ideas for the staff lunch I'd be making. We were looking for a main dish that was  both gluten free and vegetarian so we could please the whole staff and accommodate everyone's dietary needs. And it had to be delicious, of course. This was no  small order. But there in Deb Perelman's sweet book was a recipe that appeared to meet all of our requirements. Wild rice gratin. I went for it.

 It's not the easiest or fastest recipe in the world (not super complicated, just lots of steps) but HOLY COW was it tasty. Aside from getting so wrapped up in the assembly of the dish before it went into the oven that I put buttery breadcrumbs on top of all of it making it inedible for my gluten free friends (but that's another story) it came out great and was very, very well received. I realized that I could make it for the kids with just a few easy switches, and thought it might just fill the cheesy rice casserole hole in my heart with something even better.
So here's what I did. I'll give it to you in amounts more suitable for a family sized recipe - a 13x9 pan. With the amounts pictured here I'm cooking for about 35 kids! And a thousand million thanks to Deb Perelman over and again for her fantastic recipe!!

First, you'll need about 8-9 cups cooked long grain brown rice. The rice should be warm when you combine it with the rest of the ingredients right before baking. Everything will come together better if it is, so start the rice before you start anything else. It will take about 40 minutes to cook once the water boils. Once the rice is underway, preheat your oven to 375.

Next,  cut a large white onion into thin slices. Heat about a table spoon of butter or olive oil in a saute pan and add all the onions. Cook on medium/low heat, stirring every now and then until they are starting to caramelize. This could take a while, like up to 20 minutes or so. Be patient. Letting the onions go as long as they need to  really makes a difference in the taste in the end.

While the onion is cooking, remove the tough stems from a good sized bunch of kale. Then wash the leaves and cut them into bite sized ribbons.

In another saute pan can cook the kale in another tablespoon of olive oil or butter on medium heat until it starts to soften and turns dark green and shiny. When the onions and kale are both ready, combine them in a pan and toss together.

 Next you should grate three cups of good sharp cheddar cheese  and set  2 cups aside.

Then comes the assembly! Get a large mixing bowl and combine the cooked rice, the kale/onion mixture, 2 cups of the grated cheese, a half cup of chicken or vegetable broth, and salt and pepper to taste. I like about 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 teaspoon pepper to start. Mix that in, taste, and adjust.
Then spray your pan with some cooking spray or brush with some olive oil, and tip the mixture in and spread it out evenly.
Now remember that last cup of grated cheese? Sprinkle it over the top.

 If you're looking for a gluten free dish, stop here and  pop that pan in your preheated oven for about 20 minutes or until the top is bubbly and beginning to brown. Otherwise, take 1 cup of breadcrumbs and mix with three tablespoons of melted butter, then sprinkle the mixture over the top of your pan before baking.

We served it with sliced peppers, cinnamon apples, and whole wheat bread.
It was everything I hoped it would be and more! The kids loved it  and it's now on the permanent menu rotation. Thanks Smitten Kitchen!!!