Thursday, February 9, 2012

Healthy Baked Penne with Chicken and Spinach

This is one of my family's favorite recipes!  I have made this meal for lots of people and everyone, including picky (per their parents) kids, love it.  It is a great dish to take to someone in need of a home-cooked meal, someone like a brand new Mom.  The recipe can be made ahead: it reheats beautifully in the microwave and I think tastes even better the next day!

Healthy Baked Penne with Chicken and Spinach
Makes 4 generous servings 
(Recipe can be doubled and baked in a 13 by 9 inch dish)

If you are craving a creamy pasta dish, this is a much healthier way to fulfill your craving. As with any recipe, getting all of your ingredients out and chopped, measured, etc. (mise en place) will make this dish a breeze to throw together.  Make sure you squeeze the spinach very dry or the casserole will be watery.  You may also substitute 1 1/2-2 cups of leftover cooked greens such as kale or collards if you have those on hand.  To make the dish vegetarian, omit the chicken and double the spinach.

1 Tb. + 1 1/2 tsp. olive oil
12 oz boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2), trimmed and sliced thin
1 onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
pinch red pepper flakes
2 Tb. all purpose flour
4 C. 1% lowfat milk
1 bay leaf
1/2 C. grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 oz)
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
10 oz. frozen chopped spinach, thawed, squeezed very dry (try using a clean kitchen towel and ring out)
salt and pepper
8 oz. whole wheat penne pasta
1/2 C. shredded part skim mozzarella OR reduced fat shredded Italian cheese blend (about 2 oz)

This is how we do it:
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees.  Lightly coat an 8" square dish with cooking spray and set aside.
2. Pat sliced chicken dry with paper towels and season lightly with salt and pepper. Heat 1 1/2 tsp. of olive oil in 12 inch skillet over high heat until just smoking. Add chicken, breaking up any clumps, and cook until lightly browned but not fully cooked, about 3 minutes.  Transfer to a bowl.
3. Add remaining 1 Tb. olive oil to skillet and heat over medium.  Add onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Stir in garlic and red pepper flakes and cook just until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
4. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute.  Slowly whisk in the milk and bay leaf and bring to a simmer.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened slightly, about 10 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, while sauce is simmering, bring 4 quarts water to a boil in a large pot.  Add 1 Tb. salt and the penne to pot and cook, stirring often, until almost al dente but still firm to the bite.  Reserve 1/4 cup of pasta cooking water, then drain and return to pot.
6. When sauce is thickened, return chicken with any accumulated juice to the skillet.  Simmer about 1 minute until chicken is cooked through. Discard the bay leaf.  Off the heat, stir in the Parmesan and lemon juice.  Stir in the spinach, breaking up any clumps, until well combined.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
7. Add the chicken-spinach mixture and reserved pasta water to the large pot with the drained, cooked pasta.  Pour into prepared baking dish and sprinkle evenly with shredded mozzarella.  Bake until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese is lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes before serving.

Adapted from America's Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook
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