Chicken & basil macaroni cheese
This is a nice little twist on a classic macaroni; I’ve added chicken for extra grunt and Parmesan, basil and garlic for a lovely Italian vibe. Sneaking in loads of spinach and peas, it’s a complete meal in a dish! If your budget permits, I like adding chopped fried bacon pieces or chopped salami. If you can, use whole milk for this recipe – cooking with trim milk just doesn’t cut it for me. For a lighter option, you can use Edam cheese as the cheddar and leave out the cream.
4-5 chicken thighs, boneless & skinless
3 cups dry macaroni
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tsp dried oregano
2 1/4 cups milk
1/2 cup cream
¼ cup flour mixed with 1/3 cup milk
2-3 cups chopped washed spinach
1 ½ cup peas, cooked
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1 cup grated Colby, Edam or tasty cheese
1 large packet fresh basil, roughly torn
Zest of 1 lemon, plus a good squeeze of juice
2 garlic pita breads, roughly chopped
Preheat the oven to 180c. Season with chicken thighs with salt and pepper.
Cook the macaroni until al dente (still firm to the bite), drain and stir through some olive oil so it doesn’t stick together. Set aside.
Heat a large frying pan over a high heat. Add a splash of olive oil and the chicken thighs (whole). Cook until golden brown and crispy on one side, then turn over and cook for another few minutes to brown the other side. Transfer to a roasting dish and bake in the oven for 15 minutes to finish off the cooking. Remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly. When cool, tear or cut into bite sized pieces.
While the chicken is in the oven, reduce the heat to medium and the butter and another splash of oil to the same pan (don’t clean it first, the chicken on the bottom adds flavour). Add the onion, garlic and oregano and cook, stirring for about 5 minutes until the onion is soft.
Add the milk, cream and the flour mixture to the pan, whisking all the time as you do it until it’s well combined. Simmer for 5-10 minutes or so until the sauce has thickened. Add half the Parmesan and the cheese, and stir until melted. Lastly stir through the peas, spinach, basil, lemon zest and juice, and chicken pieces. Taste and season with salt and cracked pepper to taste (don’t forget this step – it will need seasoning!). Stir the cooked macaroni through, then pour it all into a baking or casserole dish.
Mix the chopped pita with the remaining Parmesan and a little olive oil and salt. Sprinkle on top of the macaroni as the crust. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes until golden, crunchy and bubbling on top.
I like serving this with a fresh green salad with a tangy vinaigrette made with 3 tbsp oil, 1 tsp Dijon mustard and 1 tbsp red or white wine vinegar.