Growing up in Jeddah and Karachi if there was a dinner part then one of two dishes was always at the table. My mama's Chicken and Cheese or a White Sauce Chicken Pasta. The deciding factor was always the number of people. Chicken and Cheese doesn't go as far (make it and you'll see) as this White Sauce Chicken Pasta which has a similar base, but additional bulk.
I say White Sauce because that is what we always called it - the 'correct' name is Bechamel and 'correctly' made it is a very different being than the desi-fied version I am about to present today.
What goes in the White Sauce?
- A roux - this is the cooked butter flour base that thickens and flavors
- Milk - the element that creates the white sauce
- Seasoning - good ol S&P
- Unorthodox Desi Ingredients - minced onions, chilies, a boullion cube - my apologies to the French.
- Cheese - You can use whatever cheese you like, but do remember it greatly alters flavor. Personal favorites: monterey jack or cheddar
What Vegetables Can I Use?
In this incarnation I have used Mushrooms and Spinach, but you throw in anything your heart desires. Just saute' them off in the begining (or roast) and mix them in at the end. Corn works super well here too.
Make Ahead Tips
This pasta does great made a day ahead. Simply assemble and bake till bubbly - 25-30 minutes are 375F and then broil for that beautiful cheese crust! Just remember not to overboil your pasta!
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- 8 tbsp butter (110g)
- ½ cup flour
- 1 litre milk
- 150-200 g chicken (half a chicken breast) shopped into bite size pieces
- 100-125 g mushrooms remove stems and slice
- 150 g spinach washed, roughly chopped
- ½ cup minced onion
- 3-4 minced green chilies (for a spicy dish increase the green chilies to 6 as they mellow when they cook)
- ½ chicken boullion cube
- nutmeg - ⅛ tsp grated (optional)
- 200 g shredded cheese (monterey jack or cheddar preferred)
- 8 oz pasta - shells (as shown), penne, bow tie, small rigatoni
Put two pots on the stove - one with salted water to boil pasta and one with two tbsp of oil
When the oil is hot add the chicken pieces, cook one side on medium high for 2-3 minutes, then flip over and cook until the chicken is cooked through - another 2-3 minutes.
Remove the chicken from the pot, leave any extra oil and add the mushrooms on medium high heat - saute until cooked through, season with salt and pepper.
Stir in the chopped spinach until it wilts and then remove the spinach and corn into the same dish as the chicken
Now add the butter and when it melts sprinkle the flour over stirring frequently until the color changes and it smells a little toasty - 3-5 minutes
Add a cup of the milk and whisk then gradually add the rest. Adding in stages makes it easier to break up clumps
Stir in the chilies, onion, bouillon cube, nutmeg (if using) and bring the mix to a boil then simmer (stirring frequently) until thickened - about 10-12 minutes
Preheat your oven to 400F
Put your pasta into boil - boil according to package directions until al dente if you like it soft (it will bake in the oven) or a minute less for more of a bite. Remember to reserve a cup of pasta water when you drain it
Once the white sauce has thickened turn off the stove and stir in the chicken, mushrooms, and half cheese. Now taste for seasoning - you want to add a fat pinch of pepper, salt according to how salty the cheese is. As it bakes the pasta will absorb the flavor so you want it to be nice and punchy right now.
Stir in the cooked pasta, adding the reserved pasta water to loosen the sauce if needed - how much tends to vary by shape. If you forgot to reserve pasta water then milk will do.
Spoon the pasta into a lightly greased 9*9 pan or whatever similarly sized oven safe dish you have handy and scatter the remaining cheese on top
Bake at 400F for 15-20 minutes to meld the flavors then broil for another 2-3 to get that lovely crispy cheese.
Wait for a few minutes before digging in - pasta will be HOT!
- If you want to skip the baking part you can always put the cheese on top and broil or breadcrumbs tossed with a little melted butter. You can also skip both entirely and serve as is
- This dish is HIGHLY customizable - put in whatever works for your family. If you add a 'bulkier' vegetable like broccoli then increase the sauce base by 20% (more butter, milk, flour)