Remember this absolutely amazing incredible mac and cheese recipe? If you haven't made it yet, you really are missing out. Because it really and truly is the best mac and cheese of all time. I realize that's a lofty claim, but I have eaten a LOT of mac and cheese in my day, so I feel pretty confident in my assertion.
So anyway, I took that macaroni and cheese, and I added some broccoli and chicken to it. To make it a full meal, of course. Look, I can make an entire meal out of a big bowl of mac and cheese, but in the name of adult responsibility, I felt like a vegetable and a protein were needed. So cheesy baked shells with broccoli and chicken were born!
It's become a standing tradition to for me to make a big dinner for the kids' birthdays. Smith turned three last week (obvious comment about time moving too quickly), and I'm going to be brutally honest here for a minute. That kid has challenged me more than I thought possible. At fifteen months, the poor guy was only a baby himself when Henry and Tucker came along and rocked our world, and he definitely didn't know exactly how to handle the upheaval. We went though many tough phases with him: sitting on the babies, pushing them over, throwing toys at them, stealing their milk and food, you name it. Not to mention the normal day-to-day toddler meltdowns and challenges.
But in the past six months or so, there's been a shift. He's gone from pushing the babies down, to helping them back up when they fall. He no longer steals their milk, but is waiting at the bottom of the stairs with it every morning when they wake up. He teaches them all the animal and dinosaur sounds. He's there to give them hugs and kisses when they have their own epic tantrums. And he's the referee between their toddler skirmishes now. This guy was just meant to be a big brother.
So we celebrated my big boy's birthday with this cheesy baked pasta dish. It's the best dinner I could think of for my little guy, and it was a hit with the whole family. We're looking forward to another fun-filled year with this sweet boy!
Cheesy Baked Shells with Broccoli and Chicken
adapted from this macaroni and cheese (which is from Cook's Illustrated)
serves 8 to 10
- 1 recipe Panko Topping (follows)
- 4 cups chopped broccoli florets
- 1 pound medium pasta shapes, such as shells
- 6 Tbs unsalted butter
- 2 medium garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tsp dry mustard
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 6 Tbs all-purpose flour
- 2 1/4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
- 3 1/2 cups milk (low-fat is fine)
- 1 pound colby jack cheese, shredded (about 4 cups)
- 8 oz extra-sharp cheddar, shredded (about 2 cups)
- 2 cups diced cooked chicken
- ground black pepper
In a large microwave-safe bowl, toss the broccoli with a splash of water. Cover with plastic wrap. Cook 3-4 minutes, stirring after every minute, until the broccoli is bright green, and just tender. Set aside.
Bring water to a boil in a large dutch oven set over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of salt and the pasta, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is just beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Drain the pasta and leave in the colander.
Wipe the pot dry, and add the butter, and set it over medium heat until melted. Stir in the garlic, mustard, and cayenne, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the flour, and cook, stirring constantly, until golden, about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in the chicken broth and milk, and bring to a simmer. Whisking often, cook until large bubbles form on the surface and the sauce is slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the cheeses until completely melted. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Stir the drained pasta, broccoli, and diced chicken into the cheese sauce, breaking up any clumps, until well combined. Pour into a lightly greased 9x13 inch baking dish and sprinkle with crumb topping.
Bake uncovered, until the sauce is bubbling and the crumbs are crisp, 25-35 minutes.
To store and serve later: Wrap the dish tightly with foil, and refrigerate for up to 2 days. To serve, bake in a 400 degree oven until the filling is hot throughout, about 40-45 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to cook until the crumbs are crisp, 15-20 minutes.
- 1 cup panko bread crumbs
- 2 Tbs unsalted butter, melted
- 2 Tbs minced fresh parsley
- salt and pepper