Today we took it easy at home. My husband mowed the lawn, I did a little cleaning, the kids played . . . it was just a run of the mill Sunday.
And what does a cooking happy mama think of on a run of the mill Sunday? Sunday dinner of course. Tonight I had some boneless chicken breasts and some button mushrooms that both needed to be used or tossed, so I brainstormed ideas for using those ingredients together. I was bored to tears at the idea of just making chicken breasts in some way that you'd eat them with a knife and fork, so I decided to get more creative and try a casserole. The results were a huge crowd pleaser that my kids both gobbled down, and that had my husband going back for thirds.
I started by crisping some bacon on a griddle, then reserving the fat in a coffee mug. I used the same griddle to cook the chicken breasts (4), which I had just lightly salted and peppered. I set all of the meat in the fridge to cool. I chopped 5 ribs of celery and one small onion and put them in a sauce pan with half a stick of butter. Once they were sizzling, I added the mushrooms (about a cup and a half, chopped). I cooked that until the onions were translucent and the mushrooms looked sauteed, then I transferred the entire contents of the sauce pan into a large bowl.
I set a pot of water to boil, and poured my bacon fat into the sauce pan I had just used to sautee the vegetables. When the bacon fat was hot, I added some flour to make a roux. I cooked the roux for about 5 minutes, then added enough milk to get it to the consistency of a thick liquid, whisking constantly. I let the sauce bubble for about ten minutes. During that time, I put my pasta into the boiling water. I used ditalini, which are small little cylinders. While the sauce bubbled and the pasta boiled, I chopped up my chicken and bacon. I diced the chicken, but it would have been fantastic shredded too. I threw the chicken and bacon into the same bowl with the sauteed vegetables. I drained my now finished pasta and added it to the bowl as well.
Then I turned my attention back to the sauce. The sauce was really the star of the show. It took a bunch of otherwise good tasting ingredients and tied them together so that they became one in a fantastic dinner that was the very embodiment of comfort food. Once my sauce had bubbled for awhile, I added two cups of shredded sharp cheddar. The cheese melted very quickly, and then I had a beautiful, fantastic smelling, delicious sauce. I poured the entire sauce into the bowl with all of the other ingredients and mixed it well. I transferred the contents of the bowl into a baking dish and baked it at 350 for about 20 minutes.
The end result involved two toddlers telling me that my cooking is "ishish" (delicious) and one husband clutching his stomach as he went back for thirds because "it's so damn good". Can't beat reviews like that!
A few key points here are that you can't over flavor the chicken or the vegetables. I tend to fall into the trap of "more is more", and I want to add a little bit of every spice in my pantry. I didn't this time, and it was the right call. Also, and this is the most important part of recreating this meal, you must boil the sauce. Anytime you make a sauce or gravy that starts off with a roux, you must boil it to cook down the starchiness of the flour. Trust me. I've been in a hurry and thought, "How different can it really taste?", and just taken my gravy off the heat before it really came to a boil. It matters. Do yourself a favor, and let your sauce boil for at least ten minutes. When you're doing a cheese sauce like I did tonight, don't add the cheese until after you've boiled the sauce.
I created the perfect ending to the perfect day just because I had to use up some food that would have gone bad otherwise. Now I also have a pretty big bowl full of leftovers that I can't wait to dive into for lunch tomorrow. What could be better?