I suffered with fairly severe eczema and asthma as a child and of course, it was ALL triggered by food. The list of foods I could not eat included ice-cream (the cold set off my wheezing – imagine living in Nairobi and not being able to enjoy the icy creations from Snow Queen!), cold drinks, fish, shellfish, oranges and passion fruit. I am not sure how scientific any of this was but it was what my mother and I felt set off a bout of up-all-night-wheezing or scratching. While she sat up with me holding my hand through another breathless night, we would discuss what I had eaten that could have triggered it off. The list grew quite lengthy. For some reason, left-overs were deemed to be a culprit too, so all my food was freshly prepared.
Today, left-overs are something that I practically plan for – they speed up after-work cooking and stretch the food budget without any hint of parsimony. My favourite is left-over roast chicken. No matter how I have cooked it, I always strip what is left on the carcass while it is still warm as this yields the most flesh. I also break up the bones for a simple stock that I start for an hour or two on the Sunday evening or pop the bones into a freezer bag for another time. And I save all the cooking juices, gravy and vegetables. Favourite left-over chicken meals include risotto with any left-overs being made into oven baked arancini the following day which we have with a spicy tomato sauce and a rocket salad; there are pot pies in the winter and pasta salads in the summer, also soups, green curries and stir fries. Left over roast chicken is one of my favourite ingredients!! (And just in case you are wondering – when we moved to Winnipeg all my allergies disappeared completely, only to return when I moved to London. Today if anything flares up it is usually due to stress or damp.)
At the weekend I made my version of this braised spatchcock chicken which left me with a lot of gorgeous pan juices as well as about half a chicken. For quite some time, I have been meaning to try this chicken lasagne recipe. But when I read it through again, it seemed very heavy on the cheese and in any case, I didn’t have any lasagne sheets but I did have a packet of macaroni pasta. So my Chicken Mac ‘n’ Cheese evolved and I have to say that it was absolutely lovely; total comfort food with not too much fuss.
If you are starting from scratch, without any pre-cooked chicken or pan juices, I would suggest braise roasting 3 or 4 chicken thighs while you make the béchamel. All instructions below.
Chicken Mac ‘n’ Cheese with Rosemary
For the braise roasted chicken:
- 3 or 4 chicken thighs, bone in and skin on
- 2 banana shallots
- 4 whole peeled garlic cloves
- 4 anchovy fillets
- ¼ c of black olives – I leave the pits in and warn everyone
- 150ml of a dry white wine
- 250ml stock or water with a stock cube mixed in (vegetable or chicken)
- 2 rosemary sprigs
- Juice of half a lemon
- salt and pepper
Or if you are using left-overs:
- 250 g cooked and shredded chicken
- 200 ml of pan juices
- 1 cup of frozen peas
- 1 cup of frozen spinach, thawed
- 250 g macaroni or elbow pasta
- 20g grated parmesan cheese.
For the Béchamel Sauce:
- 60g butter
- 60 g flour
- 700ml/3 cups milk
- ⅓ of a nutmeg
- 1 Bay leaf
- 1 heaped Tbsp finely chopped rosemary needles
- 200g grated cheddar cheese separated into 150g and 50g – just eyeball it!
- 2 tsp Dijon Mustard
Pre-heat oven to 200C/400F.
MAKE THE BRAISE ROASTED CHICKEN THIGHS
Slice shallots into long half moons and sauté gently in a pan with a little olive oil for 2 or 3 minutes. Add the whole garlic cloves, the chicken thighs, the anchovies and the olives; stir it around, letting it all get a little caramelised – about 7 or 8 minutes. The anchovies will dissolve and add a deep savoury note to the pan juices. Remove the chicken to a plate. Deglaze pan with the wine, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom.
Place rosemary stalks in a snug fitting roasting dish and scrape in the savoury shallot/garlic/anchovy/olive mix over them. Nestle the chicken thighs on top and squeeze over the lemon juice and pour round the chicken stock. Season with salt and pepper. Pop in the oven for 15 – 20 minutes. Remove rosemary stalks and discard. Remove chicken from the pan juices and leave on plate until cool enough to handle; shred the meat and mix it back into the pan juices.
MAKE THE BÉCHAMEL SAUCE
Make béchamel by melting the butter over a medium heat. Sprinkle over the chopped rosemary and the flour and cook, stirring madly for about 5 minutes. Slowly add in the first cup of milk, stirring all the time to avoid lumps and then add the other two cups, stirring well after each one. Pop in the bay leaf and grate in the nutmeg. Let this just come to the boil (scald) and then turn down the heat and keep it on a low flame, to thicken which should take about 5-10 minutes. You will have to keep stirring to stop the bottom from catching. Once it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, stir in 150g of the cheddar cheese and the mustard. Take it off the heat and set aside to cool a little, stirring occasionally to stop a skin from forming – it will thicken even more as it cools.
COOK THE PASTA
Cook the macaroni pasta in lots of boiling salted water for 4 minutes. It will carry on cooking in the sauce in the oven so resist the urge to cook it any further otherwise you will end up with pasta the texture of baby food in the finished dish.
ASSEMBLE THE DISH
Place the cooked chicken, the pan juices, including the shallots, garlic and olives; the spinach and peas in a mixing bowl (or even the dish you are going to bake this in) and mix well to combine. Check on the seasoning and adjust if necessary.
Using a slotted spoon, ladle the pasta and some of the water that will be clinging to it, into the chicken mix. Stir in just over half the béchamel and mix well. It will be quite sloppy which is what you need to finish cooking the pasta. Check on the seasoning and adjust.
Spread the pasta mixture out evenly in your baking dish.
Using a tablespoon, dot the remaining béchamel evenly over the pasta mix and smooth out.
Scatter over the grated cheddar and parmesan and bake in the oven for about 30 – 40 min. It should be bubbly and golden when it is ready.
Leave it to rest and settle for about 10minutes before digging in.
Perfect with a salad.