I don't think I can ever get tired of pasta with cream sauce. Even on a hot summer day, I can devour a warm, saucy, creamy, cheesy, bowl of pasta. It is comfort food for me and love trying different variations. This recipe is ideal, I think anyway, because it can be made ahead and the end result is still the same--a delicious pasta nestled in cheesy cream sauce with bites of tender chicken, crisp broccoli and sweet tomatoes from my garden. Definitely go try this soon, and I would recommend doubling the recipe so you have one for the freezer too. Enjoy!
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Baked Penne with Chicken, Broccoli, and Mozzarella
Recipe Source: Modified slightly from Mel's Kitchen Cafe
*Note from Mel: See the asterisk below the recipe for make-ahead directions.
3/4 cup bread crumbs (store-bought or make your own)
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1 bunch broccoli (about 1 ½ pounds), stalks cut off, florets trimmed into 1-inch pieces
12 ounces penne pasta or small pasta of your choice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
6 medium garlic cloves, finely minced or pressed through a garlic press
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 3), trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces
3 ounces mozzarella, shredded
8 ounces oven roasted tomatoes chopped or jarred sun dried tomatoes drained and chopped
In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs, parmesan cheese and butter and set aside. Lightly grease a 9X13-inch baking dish and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and make sure the oven rack is placed in the middle of the oven. In a large pot, bring the water for the pasta to a boil. Stir in one tablespoon salt and the broccoli. Cook the broccoli for 1 minute, until it is bright green but not longer or it will end up mushy in the end. Remove the broccoli with a slotted spoon to a plate. Return the water to a boil and add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 1-2 minutes less than how you would eat it normally (it will cook a bit more in the oven while baking). Drain the pasta in a colander and toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Leave it in the colander and set it aside.
While the pasta is cooking, add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and return to medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook until softened and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and thyme; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add the flour, salt and pepper, and cook, stirring constantly, until golden, about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in the broth, cream and milk; bring to a simmer, whisking often. Add the chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until cooked through, about 6-7 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and mozzarella.
Add the cooked pasta and broccoli to the sauce; stir to combine. Transfer the pasta mixture to the prepared baking dish and sprinkle with the bread crumb topping. Bake until the casserole is bubbling and the crumbs are lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Serve immediately.
*The casserole can be prepared in advance with the following steps: after the broccoli is removed from the boiling water, plunge it into a bowl of ice water and cool completely. Assemble the casserole following the directions in the recipe. After the casserole is spread in the prepared baking pan, let it cool for 5-10 minutes before covering with plastic wrap and refrigerating for up to 8 hours. To bake, preheat the oven to 375 and bake uncovered for 30 minutes.