My family is all about food. We love to eat, love to cook, love to talk about it and seek out new restaurants, new recipes and new favorite dishes. This makes me happy.
I also find it quite vexing.
You see, this means that while I work to try to cook from scratch as often as possible and try to find great recipes to wow them, the results are always the same.
… next time, maybe make the sauce thicker … I would like this more if it had more spice … what is this green stuff? I don’t like the green stuff. Use other stuff … It’s okay … why is there cheese in this? … lay off the balsamic vinegar for a while, mmmkay (in their defense, I was on kind of a ‘find a recipe that uses this’ kick for a while) …
It’s become a personal challenge of mine to make the holy grail of dinners that will have them saying just one thing.
… wow. That was good.
And I did it! It wasn’t anything fancy or gourmet or a five-star dining experience; rather, it was my play on an old favorite in these parts, chicken spaghetti. It’s that cold-weather comfort food that was calling to me, but all the recipes I know of take processed cheese product–and I didn’t want that. So I took myself to my kitchen library (Hey! Those books aren’t just for show?) and looked through a few until I found one that looked good, something I could adjust to my tastes/needs and something I could put together ahead of time and possibly freeze.Who knew? All those pretty books on the shelf are
totally useful, filled with delicious ideas.
Oklahoma’s own Ree Drummond (a/k/a Pioneer Woman) had a recipe for chicken spaghetti that worked for my constraints–no brick of faux cheese, adaptable, freezable. So that’s what I whipped up for dinner, putting it all together while the kids were eating breakfast before school, which made for an interesting symphony of smells but that’s a story for another day. For now, we’ll talk about this dinner.
I put it on the table with a hot baguette and a fresh salad, and it was a total, epic win. All three of them were happy. “Yum. This is good.” was about the only thing I heard for the span of time we sat at the table and ate. No critical feedback. I finally did it! They were all happy.
You can find the original recipe here on the Pioneer Woman’s website, or in her first cookbook The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl. Or you can find my adapted recipe, below. One major change I’ve made to my cooking is to switch from boneless, skinless chicken breasts to chicken thighs. The thighs have an abundance of flavor and don’t tend to dry out as the breasts do. If you’ve not tried them before, I recommend using them in a recipe where you might normally use the breast meat.
1 package chicken thighs
1 package carb balance spaghetti noodles
2 cans cream of mushroom soup (I used one low sodium, one regular)
4 cups grated cheese (I used a cheddar/colby blend)
1 onion, cut into small dice
1 green pepper, cut into small dice
1 jar pimientos, drained
2 cups stock (from cooking chicken)
Seasoned salt and black pepper to taste
In a large pot, place the chicken thighs (trimmed of some skin and fat but not all; this builds flavor) and cover with water (about an inch more than the chicken). Throw in a few good shakes of celery seed and peppercorns, 2 cloves of smashed garlic. This is not only going to help flavor the chicken but also the stock, so build some flavors in here. Simmer for about 40 minutes, until chicken is fully cooked (check the chicken thoroughly; I’ve found that chicken thighs take a little longer than breasts).
Remove chicken to a plate to cool and strain the stock to remove solids. A nitpicky but necessary step. Set aside 2 cups of this stock and return the rest of the strained stock to your pot. Add a bit of water if you don’t have enough water to cook the noodles. Then cook them, al dente, before draining and discarding the used up stock.
Return the cooked noodles to the pot. Shred the cooked chicken and add to the noodles. I also had some leftover breast meat in the fridge that I threw in the pot. I was tempted to add bacon because, bacon. Maybe next time? Add the soups, about half (maybe a little more) of the grated cheese, onion, pepper, pimientos and stock. Salt and pepper to taste–and don’t be afraid to give it a taste, it’s all cooked.
From here, I placed this mixture into three foil baking pans (8″ round size). Then take the rest of your cheese and portion it out over the top of each so the tops are well-covered. If you need to find another package of shredded cheese at this point to ensure that you are adequately cheesy, nobody will judge you. Especially not me. Because I totally used up all the shredded cheese in the deli drawer to make sure there was enough. But I’m from Wisconsin and my cheese needs are unique. You need to do what’s right for you.
Cover these babies with foil and slip 2 of them into gallon size freezer bags for later; the third can hang out in the fridge for a few hours (and I find that’s usually good for a casserole, a few hours to chill and develop before baking).
When it’s time to eat (well, about an hour before), preheat your oven to 350 and bake for about 40 minutes or so, until the whole thing is warmed through and brown and bubbly and your kitchen smells like it’s made of win. Pro tip: set the pan on the foil you had it covered with, just in case the awesomeness cannot be contained and it bubbles over a bit.
One 8″ pan was perfect to feed my family of 4 when served with a green salad and hot bread. And, of course, true to form, I forgot to take pictures of the finished dish because we were too busy eating it.
What’s your favorite make-ahead and freeze it for later meal? I’d love to hear it, because I’m always looking for batch cooking recipes.
Mari Farthing is co-admin of Oklahoma Women Bloggers. She would totally scale tall buildings for her family, loved ones and occasionally a nice glass of Malbec if it’s been one of those days and she needs to find a new goal now that she found a dinner the while family enjoys. Mari blogs at Mari’s Virtual Notebook and Mari’s Edits.
All photos in this post have been provided by Mari and used with permission here. Photos are the sole property of Mari and may not be used without permission.