Monday, December 2, 2013

Baked Tuscan mac & cheese

Hey there and happy December!  It feels good to be back after the Thanksgiving holiday.  I put a few vacation days to good use and treated myself to an extra long weekend.  It's incredible what you can find time to do with 6 days away from the office.  (Think I'll remember what to do when I return tomorrow?)

There was so much time with family cooking, relaxing by the fire, and eating.  On Friday, we froze our tails off at the Pitt game, but it was worth it to enjoy time with our friends.  Matt and I even caught the new Hunger Games movie (so good!) and decked our halls with Christmas decorations.

So much fun and most of it was fueled by Thanksgiving leftovers.  Turkey soup, turkey sandwiches, spoonfuls of stuffing right out of the refrigerator... ahem.

But, just like the mini vacation had to come to an end, so did the surplus of leftovers.  Every year I think I'll get sick of them, but it never happens.  There only seem to be just enough of each dish to enjoy for two or three days, which is just enough.

If you're longing for non-Thanksgiving comfort food that'll supply you with leftovers for two or three more days, then this dish is for you.

Baked Tuscan mac & cheese!

Classic elbow macaroni noodles are tossed with mushrooms, garlic, onions, spinach, tomatoes, chicken, and oodles of cheese.  Then, I topped the whole shebang with more cheese and crunchy panko.  Why more cheese?  If you must ask, you don't know :)

If there's one food group that, in my opinion, is underrepresented at the Thanksgiving table, it's cheese.  Not that I found myself short on calories -- cough 4 slices of pie cough -- but I was seriously craving cheese this weekend.  We mysteriously forgot about the standard cheese ball and crackers and platter of veggies and cheese, so I was in major withdrawal.

Withdrawal that quickly vanished at first bite of this mac & cheese with not one but two kinds of cheese!

While this isn't the traditional sauce-laden variety of mac you might be accustomed to, it totally champions the "baked" category of mac & cheese dishes.  The noodles absorb the flavors of the vegetables and fragrant garlic and onion, while the parmesan and mozzarella hold everything together and create little pockets of melted gooey cheesy goodness.  Plus, you won't believe how amazing the cheesy and crunchy crusts on the bottom and top of the mac are!

For the love of cheese!  For the love of leftovers!  So you can focus all of your energies to getting back to work.

(Thankfully, the next holiday break is only 23 days away.)

Three years ago: Homemade chicken noodle soup
One year ago: Herbed chicken in puff pastry

Baked Tuscan Mac & Cheese
-serves 6 to 8

A few notes: This dish can easily be halved as well as made without chicken for a more vegetarian-friendly meal.

1 pound elbow macaroni
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
8 ounces white mushrooms, quartered
1 white onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained well
1/3 cup panko bread crumbs
1 cup grated parmesan cheese, divided
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
2 cooked chicken or turkey breasts, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
Nonstick cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with nonstick spray and set aside.  In a small bowl, combine panko and 1/2 cup parmesan cheese and set aside for later.

Over high heat, bring a large pot of water to boil.  Add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes until tender.  Drain pasta, return it to large stock pot, set that aside, too.

In a large saute pan, heat olive oil over medium heat.  Add mushrooms, onion, and garlic, and cook until vegetables are tender, about 7 minutes.  Add tomatoes & juice and spinach and stir to combine.  Cook until heated through, about 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and add vegetables to pasta in stock pot, and stir to combine.  To pasta and vegetable mixture, fold in mozzarella cheese and remaining 1/2 cup of parmesan.

Sprinkle half of the panko parmesan mixture on the bottom of the baking dish.  Spoon pasta, cheese, and vegetable mixture into baking dish, leveling when finished.  Top with remaining panko parmesan mixture.  Baking until top begins to turn golden, about 30 to 40 minutes.  Remove and allow to rest for 5 minutes.  Serve and enjoy!

Leftovers can be covered and refrigerated (and reheated) for up to 5 days.  (In fact, leftovers are amazing!)

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