Even though I’ll happily spend the better part of a Saturday afternoon in the grocery store (much to my husband’s dismay), there are days when I’d rather not—or can’t—leave the house. Today turned out to be one of those days, primarily because I found it much more enjoyable to sit in my pajamas, drink coffee, and watch the snow fall than to risk life and limb driving to Whole Foods. (Okay, “life and limb” may be an exaggeration.)
When circumstances call for a dinner that’s warm and cozy, you don’t have to bother with a trip to the grocery store; a reasonably well-stocked pantry is all you need. I came to this realization last December, when DC was in the throes of a record-breaking snowstorm. We had a couple of fresh links of andouille sausage in the fridge and wanted a way to use them for dinner. Jambalaya was out of the question, as we lacked about 75% of the ingredients required and couldn’t get to the store. We thought a pasta with cream sauce might go well with the sausage, but we didn’t have any cream. In my online searching, I came across a recipe for a “Spicy Sausage and Penne Casserole,” which called for a béchamel sauce. My feelings as I looked over the recipe were both elation at the discovery and utter disappointment in myself for not having come to this conclusion on my own. Of course! Béchamel! Why didn’t I think of that sooner?
Sauce béchamel is one of the four “mother sauces” of classic French cuisine. It’s an extremely versatile white sauce made by adding hot milk to a roux of butter and flour (which serves to thicken the milk) and then finishing with seasonings such as salt, white pepper, and nutmeg.
After just a few small adjustments to the Spicy Sausage and Penne Casserole recipe, we had a perfectly cozy meal. (My changes, based on preference and the ingredients I had in the pantry: jarred roasted red peppers, instead of fresh bell peppers; broken-up sausage, instead of sliced; no butter in the bread-crumb topping; and whole wheat penne.)
After my béchamel epiphany last month, I knew exactly what to do when dinnertime came this snowy evening:
Snow-Day Pasta Casserole
9 oz penne pasta
11 oz chicken-breast (about 2 medium)
6oz frozen spinach* (thawed, excess moisture squeezed out)
6oz frozen peas
4oz freshly grated sharp cheddar*
2 oz freshly grated parmesan
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups hot milk (preferably whole or 2%)
*Feel free to substitute whatever vegetables and cheeses you like.
Preheat oven to 350F.
Heat about a teaspoon of olive oil in a nonstick skillet. Cut chicken into bite-size pieces, season with salt, pepper and garlic powder and sauté over medium heat until cooked through (about 5 minutes). Set aside.
Meanwhile, bring a 4-qt pot of water to boil. Generously salt the water and add pasta. Cook until pasta it is not quite al dente (about a minute less than the package instructions). Drain and return to pot. (If the pasta takes 10 minutes to cook, you can add it to the water just before adding the milk to the béchamel—see below.)
In a 2-qt sauce pan, gently melt butter. When butter is melted, add flour, whisking constantly until a smooth paste is formed. Cook, whisking, about 2-3 minutes over medium heat. Mixture should begin to have a nutty, toasted smell. Add hot milk, whisking constantly. Bring mixture to a simmer and cook, stirring constantly, until thick (3-5 minutes). Add seasoning to taste. (Several dashes of salt, pepper, and garlic powder, a couple dashes of nutmeg, and a couple pinches of cayenne pepper.)
Turn off the heat. Add about half each of the cheddar and parmesan and stir until melted and smooth. (At this point, it actually becomes sauce mornay, which is simply béchamel with cheese.)
Add the sauce, chicken, and vegetables to the pasta and fold gently until combined.
Pour mixture into a 9” x 13” casserole, smooth and top with remaining cheese.
Bake for 20 minutes on rack in the middle of the oven, until edges are bubbly. Adjust rack closer to the top and broil on high for about 5 minutes (watch it carefully!) until the cheese just begins to brown.
Allow to cool about 10 minutes before serving.
Serve with a full-bodied white or light red wine. (The Beaujolais Nouveau we had was lovely.)