This Easter Sunday was a beautiful warm sunny day here in New York so Russell and I spent the bulk of our day enjoying the outdoors.
We woke up bright and early (thanks to our little dog Betty) and decided to go for breakfast a few subway stops away and to take a quiet leisurely walk home. When we got back we took the pups out to the dog park for a while, and then came home and spent most of the rest of the day in our back yarden (combination yard/ garden, just indulge me). Once the sun started to go down and the air turned a little chilly, we decided it was time to come up with a plan for dinner.
Since it was a holiday I thought we deserved something a bit rich and indulgent even though we weren’t celebrating with family or friends. Considering that most of the day was behind us, I also wanted it to be something that I could have on the table and in our bellies in just about an hour or so. I thought a nice hearty pasta dish would be the ideal thing to round out the day, but since I wanted it to be indulgent and creamy, I knew cheese would be the prefect addition. The more I thought about it, the more I knew I should let the cheese take center stage, while still loading it up with all the other hearty tasty things I wanted to add.
I often like to make a quick “healthy-ish” pasta dinner with chicken and broccoli and whatever else sounds good, but after the addition of some bacon and loads of cheese, this dish seemed to stray out of that category. Since it doesn’t have a crunchy crumbly baked topping, it also doesn’t quite feel like a traditional homemade mac & cheese. It seems to fall somewhere in between the two, but since it does have a rich and creamy béchamel cheese sauce, I think that “fully loaded” stovetop mac & cheese is the perfect name for it. Whatever you want to call it, it is definitely less than healthy, and completely delicious.
Crisping the bacon on its own allows you to render the fat to later make the béchamel. Cubing the uncooked chicken helps it cook faster while remaining flavorful and tender. Roasting the broccoli in the oven instead of, say, boiling it with the pasta, keeps it from tasting waterlogged and soggy and helps it absorb as much of the creamy sauce as possible. Slicing open and roasting the grape tomatoes concentrates their flavor and sweetness and gives them an almost sun-dried quality. Of course, if you wanted to save some time and avoid turning on the oven, you could boil the broccoli with the pasta or steam it while the pasta cooked, and you could use chopped sun-dried tomatoes in place of the roasted fresh ones. Either way, if you work smartly and efficiently you can finish this dish in just about an hour. It does require a bit of work but none of the steps are overly complicated or time-consuming, so I think it would be an excellent weeknight meal.
I wasn’t sure that the chicken or the tomatoes would marry well with the sharp cheddar cheese, but my concerns were totally for nothing. This meal is totally delicious and really hearty and filing, and was the perfect way to finish of our lazy Easter Sunday. The creamy sharp cheese gives it an almost tangy quality that combines really well with the sweetness of the tomatoes and the umami saltiness of the bacon. If you cook the pasta to be al dente this dish has a really nice variety of textures as well as flavors. The chicken is tender but with some substance, the pasta has just a bit of bite, the roasted broccoli has a little bit of crunch, the bacon adds some welcome crispiness, and the perfect creaminess of the cheese sauce rounds the whole meal out.
Now if you’ll excuse me, there are some leftovers that seem to be calling my name.
Fully Loaded Stovetop Mac & Cheese
1 pint washed grape tomatoes, sliced in half lengthwise
1 large bunch broccoli, chopped into bite size florets
1 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
4 oz bacon
1 lb skinless boneless chicken breasts
1 small onion, diced
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
8 oz white cheddar cheese, grated
1 lb (16 oz) shell pasta (or another shape if you want)
Preheat oven to 400 and bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. On a parchment lined sheet pan, arrange halved tomatoes cut side up, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss broccoli with olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, and arrange on another parchment lined sheet. Roast both for 20 to 25 minutes, until cooked and brown but not burnt or dried out.
While the vegetables roast, slice your bacon against the grain into small thin strips and cook in a heavy skillet over medium high heat until browned and crispy, probably about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel lined plate. Drain most of the grease off into a glass measuring cup, leaving about a tablespoon to cook your chicken. Cut the chicken into bite sized cubes, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until just cooked through, about 10 minutes. Remove and transfer to paper towel lined plate with bacon.
Cook pasta until al dente according to package directions. Drain and return to pasta pot along with cooked tomatoes, broccoli, chicken and bacon. If desired, reserve about a tablespoon or two of bacon to garnish.
Meanwhile, measure out 2 tablespoons of bacon fat and return to the pan, discarding anything left (or save for later use). If you don’t have enough, make up the difference with butter. Add onion and cook until just beginning to brown. Add the flour, whisk until well combined, and cook over medium heat for 2 or 3 minutes. Slowly add milk, a little at a time, whisking out any lumps. Cook until thick and bubbly, probably 5 to 8 minutes or so, whisking regularly to prevent lumps. Once the sauce is thick, turn the heat off and add the cheese. Stir in until fully melted and well combined. Pour sauce over pasta and stir stir stir until everything is well combined. Plate and garnish with a little crumbled bacon if desired.