cheesy chicken casserole

Ever have one of those DAYS where literally every single thing is wrong and stupid, and you got out of work too late, and there's a HUGE line at the grocery store and no one's working the registers, and other drivers are so bad you cannot imagine how they function in life, and when you get home you find a dried up cat poop on the floor? And you're like, omg, I CANNOT POSSIBLY DO ANYTHING ELSE IN LIFE TODAY ESPECIALLY USE MORE THAN ONE POT FOR DINNER SO ONE POT MEAL IT IS?

This is just the right food for that kind of moment. But even with creative modifications, it still will take two pots: further proof that nothing in life is ever easy or fair.

5778C44D-28D2-45FE-8A87-982818393FA1.JPG

I originally didn't write up this recipe because I was worried people would judge me for using cream of something soup in food given how faux-highbrow and annoying I am the rest of the time. 2-pot wonder status aside, this is what people of my upbringing would only ever refer to as casserole, which in my world is a baked early 90s mess featuring mush pasta, pre-cooked meats, and a cream soup binder.

Fortunately for all of us, significant advancements have been made in cream soups since I was six, and this is now a recipe you can almost be proud of. 

How am I justifying this?

  1. I grated cheese by hand for this,
  2. The chicken is freshly baked and not from a rotisserie,
  3. Truffle sea salt in the crust. 

You know what though? I don't care. I talk a big game here on this blog nobody reads. But I am willing to admit that I wouldn't say no to this thing, even if none of the above conditions were satisfied. Cream + cheese + carb + chicken melted together is the winningest 4 C's that ever was, and as a result I will not hear ill spoken of the 5th, either: casserole. CASSEROLE. Say it with me. 

And that's because casserole is here for you, however you want to make it. It's more of a template than a real recipe. You can leave the chicken out and switch to cream of mushroom soup, which makes it 100% vegetarian. Roasted mushrooms (yas), baby spinach, etc. all work well mixed right in, as long as you salt appropriately. You can use cajun seasoning on the chicken instead of paprika, add any number of interesting salts to the cheese crust, or serve with a big swirl of hot sauce on top (men in particular seem to enjoy that). But like I said, limitations: I've found when I add broccoli, for example, everything comes out dry and pasty; with a big fat noodle like rigatoni, the liquid will be a tiny bit off and you'll need more milk to compensate.

Science is fun guys. Experiment. No one will judge you. Especially not me.

Proof: just look at my life. This is how I spend my time. Please ignore cat.

RECIPE

Effortful time: 20 minutes
Total time: 1 1/2 hours
Serves: 8

YOU NEED

  • 8 oz. pasta, your choice — I like shells and fusili
  • 8 oz. boneless, skinless chicken breast
  • 1 tbsp. safflower or other neutral oil 
  • 1 tsp. italian seasoning
  • 1/2 tsp. paprika
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 container Pacific Natural Foods cream of chicken soup (2 cups)
  • 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 4 oz. grated sharp cheddar
  • 4 oz. grated monterey jack (you can use bagged cheddar jack — but it won't melt as well)
  • 2 oz. freshly grated parmiggiano
  • 1/2 tsp. fancy flaked salt — truffle, smoked, or whatever (optional)
  • Oil spray or cooking spray
  • Salt and pepper

MAKE IT

  1. Preheat oven to 425°. Rub oil on both sides of chicken and sprinkle on salt, pepper, paprika, and italian seasonings. Lay the chicken in an ovenproof baking dish — one big enough that you'll able to put the wholeeee pasta dish in for baking later. Pop that guy in the oven for about 20 minutes or so (which was long enough to hit 150° on my thermometer). It'll cook way more in the final step.
  2. Meanwhile, boil salted water for pasta. Cook pasta until VERY under al dente, about 5 min total. It needs to be able to absorb the sauce without overcooking. Don't kill it.
  3. Drop the heat on the oven to 350°. Remove chicken and chop into bite-sized cubes. This dish is now pasta-ready!
  4. In the pasta pot, stir together pasta with the cream of chicken soup, milk, cayenne, pepper, a pinch of salt, and about 3/4 of the cheddar and jack cheeses. Add the chicken cubes and stir again so that there is perfect harmony of chicken, cheesiness, and pasta throughout. 
  5. Lightly spray an oven-proof baking dish. (I am obsessed with the one in this picture, from Staub.) Pour in the pasta mixture and push it into the edges. Sprinkle with the last 1/4 of cheddar and jack, along with parm. This is all the crust you need! Breadcrumbs will feel unnecessary and even redundant once you taste. Trust me, I've tried.
  6. Bake, covered in foil, at 350° for 35-45 minutes. Remove and continue to cook another 15 minutes until the cheese is bubbling and the top has nice color.
  7. If you like a crustier, crunchier cheesy edge, run the broiler for 4-5 minutes, checking regularly for burning in case your broiler is insane.
  8. Remove and let cool for about 10 minutes. The soupy bits will absorb when you stir, but right now they are the texture and temperature of fresh magma. Avoid.
  9. Wine pairing: this goes great with the low-rent, funky red "table blends" of my early twenties, which is when I most often made this dish as an answer to "I want my mom" on snowy Thursday nights in my apartment.