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Dec 13, 2010

Comfort Food: Chicken and Cheese


Like most people who enjoy food and cooking, I’m always game to try something new. The thrill of discovering an unexpectedly great flavor combination or cozying up to a previously unfamiliar ingredient inspires me to seek out new foods. But at the end of a long work week or the end of a busy weekend, I yearn for the old rather than the new. I break out the comfort food recipes.

The most comforting foods are usually the most familiar. For me these are often foods I remember from childhood, especially from big holiday dinners where my maternal grandmother cooked for 40 or more people. From big, steaming pots of chicken and dumplings to coconut layer cake with a pile of white frosting, eating dishes I first encountered as a child is soothing.

Even my dad’s signature peanut butter and jelly sandwich can always put a big smile on my face. My dad doesn’t cook, but he makes the best PB&J. He mixes the peanut butter into the grape jelly with a fork then spreads the oddly colored, strangely lumpy mixture onto the bread. It looks weird, sure, but it tastes so good. (I was quite surprised when, as a young adult, I found out most people don’t mix the two elements of PB&J. If you’ve never mixed them, you’re really missing out.)

One of the joys of getting married is joining two families, which means sharing in two sets of culinary traditions and two sets of comfort foods. I may never convince my husband, who was born in upstate New York, that grits are delicious, but he’ll happily devour a slice of my Maw Maw’s German chocolate cake or one of my mom’s biscuits.

I’m lucky to have married into a family of folks who can make exquisite deep dish lasagna and perfect ribs. My husband’s family also makes a dish they call Chicken and Cheese, and it has become a key recipe in our combined repertoire of comfort foods.

Chicken and Cheese is one of those great innovations that sometimes happen when your fridge and pantry are filled with a mishmash of seemingly incompatible ingredients and dinner needs to be ready in less than an hour. When my husband and his twin brothers were young, their mom found herself in just such a situation. The meal she devised has long since become a family favorite, often requested at birthdays and other special occasions.

The first time I saw it being prepared my jaw dropped at the massive quantity of cheese that goes on top of this casserole. However, the first bite made me a believer. An inch of baked, browned, melty cheddar with cream bubbling around the edges clearly says, “I cooked this because I love you. I’m glad you’re here for dinner.” That’s why we make this dish so often for friends and family.

Terry and I have tweaked this recipe from time to time, experimenting with fresh ingredients in place of some items that happened to be in his mom’s pantry and spice cabinet. I’m sharing our tweaked version here, but, honestly, the original version is at least as good. So feel free to swap out dried herbs for fresh ones, regular pasta for whole wheat, and canned soup for the mushrooms and cream. This is yummy comfort food either way, and sitting down to dinner with your loved ones is the most important and most comforting step in this recipe.

We also recommend experimenting liberally with the measurements below. The only time I have ever made a bad-tasting batch of Chicken and Cheese is when I was testing this recipe in order to post it, trying so hard to get precise measurements of all the ingredients. We usually just stand at the stove and follow my husband’s first rule of cooking: “When you think you’ve added too much, add a little more.” The Worcestershire sauce is especially important, and we’ve learned not to skimp there. Slosh it on generously until you’re vaguely uncomfortable with the amount you’ve added. Then slosh on some more.



Keep reading for the recipe. You can also check out more comfort food recipes being posted this week in the Holiday Recipe Exchange. Come join the fun at the My Baking Addiction and GoodLife Eats Holiday Recipe Swap sponsored by Le Creuset.




 

Chicken & Cheese
serves a crowd or three teenage boys




INGREDIENTS
  • 1 lb. whole wheat gemelli or other spiral pasta
  • 4 chicken breast portions, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ onion, finely diced
  • ¾ cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 - 3 sprigs fresh oregano, leaves finely chopped
  • 10 ounces mushrooms, any variety, sliced or chopped
  • 1 ¼  cup cream
  • 1 ¼ cups milk
  • pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
  • 4 cups shredded cheddar
  • salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put a large pot of water on to boil. While waiting for it to boil, begin cooking the chicken.

 

Add chicken to a large skillet over medium heat.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
After about 2 minutes, add onion and garlic.
When onions begin to soften, add Worcestershire sauce.
Chicken and seasoning should simmer gently but not boil. Adjust heat if needed.
After about 10 minutes, add chopped oregano
Simmer for a few minutes more then turn off the burner.

Add pasta to boiling water and cook according to package directions.

While the pasta is cooking, add mushrooms, milk, and cream to a 5-quart casserole dish. Season with salt and pepper. Add a little freshly grated nutmeg. Stir together.

 


NOTE: You can use a dutch oven instead of a casserole. If you do, cook the chicken in the dutch oven. Then add the other ingredients to the chicken mixture. We use a 5-quart Corning Ware casserole in the blue cornflower pattern because that's what Terry's mom always cooked this dish in.

Drain pasta and pour into baking dish on top of mushrooms. Stir together.

Pour chicken into baking dish and stir to evenly distribute all the ingredients.

 

Top with 4 or more cups shredded cheese. The cheese should form a solid, substantial layer on top of the pasta mixture.

Bake for 35 to 45 minutes. The dish is done when the cheese is well browned and liquid is bubbling up around the edges.



Remove from oven and cool for 10 minutes before serving.




4 comments:

  1. It is true the food usually brings back lots of fond childhood memories. Your chicken and cheese looks delicious!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Food is always connected with childhood mamories. And memories are always connected with food. There is nothing better than a good comfort food like this one.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This really looks so good, I think I am changing tonight's dinner selection. Thanks so much, will get back to you with the end results.

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