I rely on recipes for much of my cooking, but having a few techniques down cold helps me create some simple meals in short order from staples in my pantry. A white sauce, or bechamel, forms the basis for so many dishes: macaroni and cheese, gravy, creamy soups, casseroles of all kinds. If you want a hollandaise or a bearnaise, I’ll need to consult a cookbook. But I can do a white sauce from memory any old day of the week in the time it takes to boil a pot of pasta. I embellished the sauce in the following dish by cooking onions and mushrooms in the butter before continuing with the sauce. The sauce, a box of pasta, and a handful of frozen peas stretched some leftover roasted chicken into another full meal. With a nod to those creamy casseroles of yore that relied on canned cream of mushroom soup, I topped this baked pasta with a few handfuls of crushed sea salt and black pepper potato chips.
Creamy Baked Pasta Shells with Chicken
1 pound small pasta shells
2-3 cups cooked chicken, shredded
3 Tbsp. butter
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
4-6 ounces mushrooms, finely chopped
1 tsp. dried thyme
1/4 cup flour
1/2 cup white wine
2 1/2 cups milk (or half chicken broth, half milk), heated
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 cup frozen peas
Crushed potato chips for topping
Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain and set aside.
In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until slightly softened. Add the garlic, mushrooms and thyme, and continue to cook until the mushrooms are slightly browned and the onions are translucent. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables, stir, and cook for about a minute. Stir in the wine and whisk until smooth. Pour in the milk and cook, whisking, until the mixture is smooth, thickened slightly, and just beginning to boil. Turn off the heat and stir in the Parmesan, chicken and peas. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the pasta, and transfer the mixture to a large baking dish. Sprinkle the top with crushed potato chips. Cover with foil and refrigerate if making this ahead. If baking immediately, put in a 350 degree oven for 15-20 minutes, until bubbly.
When reheating a dish you made ahead, put the covered dish in a cold oven and heat to 350 degrees. Bake covered until heated through and bubbly, 30-45 minutes.
Melissa Jerves writes about food, family and 21st century home economics on her blog, Home Baked.