Eilene’s friends are coming over for their usual Thursday night TV marathon—The Avengers this week. I have made mac & cheese for them several times and I am getting a bit board with it. I decided to do a different cheesy noodle dish using an Alfredo sauce.
At its simplest, Alfredo sauce is just melted butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (Parmesan). This is such a simple dish that—if you are making it authentically—you would wish to use top quality Parmigiano-Reggiano—about $20/pound. This can get expensive, if you are feeding more than one or two. Most modern recipes stretch the sauce with lots of added cream.
Note: In Europe there is no difference between Parmigiano-Reggiano and Parmesan cheese, by law to be called either they must be made in Italy to their own standards. In America, either label might be the genuine article or an imitation—not necessarily a bad cheese, just not “genuine” and a lot less expensive.
Once you start to thin the sauce, most cooks are tempted to add additional flavors to make up the difference. Nutmeg, garlic, and white pepper are common added seasonings—usually cooks do not add black pepper, because of the black flecks disrupt the creamy color of the sauce.
While heavy cream still thickens nicely when heated for only a few minutes, the sauce produced is very high in fat. People watching their weight need a lower fat version. However, if you use less butter and replace the heavy cream with half and half or milk the sauce needs a thickening agent—eggs or flour—to make it stick to the pasta. Some cooks also add other, less expensive, cheeses—Mozzarella, cottage or cream cheeses—to make the dish more “cheesy.”
I am feeding teenagers, so “authentic” would be lost on most of them. If it tastes good they will eat it. I would also like to make it a one dish meal—which means adding a protein and a vegetable. This leads me to make a casserole.
I don’t do casseroles—by which I mean “chop everything up, throw it in a baking dish, pop it in the oven, and walk away.” During the Fifties—at least in the U.S.—this was a casserole’s main selling point. I find this a “recipe for disaster” that results in individual ingredients being either over or undercooked and separated/gloppy sauces. However, pre- or par-cooked ingredients that are layered and then finished off in a baked casserole or 9×13 inch pan, that is something I can get behind.
My bottom layer will be lightly steamed Haricots verts—French for “green beans.” These are thinner and more tender than the common Blue Lake green beans found in most American supermarkets. A layer of noodles Alfreado topped with a layer of flavorful sautéed sliced chicken comes next. Finally, a topping of shredded Mozzarella—to be browned in the oven—Makes the final layer.
Karl’s Chicken Alfredo Casserole
Seasoning rub for the chicken
1 tsp. oregano
½ tsp. garlic powder
½ tsp. onion powder
½ tsp. black pepper
½ tsp. Kosher salt
¾ lb. (2) chicken breasts, boneless, skinless
1 red bell pepper
1 Tbs. olive oil (for frying)
1 tsp. Kosher salt
¾ lb. Haricots verts
¾ lb. wide egg noodles
4 Tbs. butter (one stick)
2 cloves garlic
4 Tbs. flour, A.P.
2 cup milk (lactose free)
½ tsp. white pepper
1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano
4 oz. low fat Mozzarella, shredded (about 1 cup)
¼ tsp. nutmeg
1. Lay the chicken on the cutting board and slice through them, parallel to the cutting board.
Tip: This will produce 4 thin fillets of chicken breast.
2. Mix the seasoning in a small bowl and rub it on all sides of the chicken breasts.
3. Wrap the chicken in plastic and set it in the refrigerator. Let it marinate while you prep the other ingredients.
Tip: You want the chicken to sit for at least 15 minutes so that the flavors infuse the meat.
4. Cut the bell pepper in half and remove the veins and seeds.
5. Put the pepper on a baking tray, skin side up and broil for ten minutes.
6. When the skin is black and blistered, transfer the pepper to a plastic bag.
Tip: The hot pepper will steam in the bag, making it easier to peel.
7. Peel and slice the cooled peppers into ¼ inch dice. Set them aside.
8. Rinse, trim and cut the green beans into 1½-2 inch pieces.
9. Bring the pot of salted water to a boil and then reduce the temperature to medium low.
10. Parboil the beans until they are just short of crisp tender, about 5 minutes.
Tip: Have a pot of iced water in the sink ready to put the green beans in when they are finished.
Note: If you are using Green Lake green beans parboil them for about 8 minutes. The beans will finish cooking in the casserole, so you do not want them to be fully cooked at this point.
12. Transfer the beans to the cold water, but do not discard the hot water. Drain the beans and set them aside.
Tip: An Asian spider is a very useful tool for fishing bits out of hot water quickly.
13. Fry the chicken breasts in the olive oil over a medium high heat. Set them aside to cool and then cut them—across the grain—into slices.
Tip: Again, it is best to not completely cook the chicken. It is OK if there is still a little bit of pink in the center of the slices, it will spend some time under the broiler to finish it off.
14. Bring the water in the pot back to a boil and add the noodles. Simmer until just al dente (about 8 minutes).
Tip: It is OK if they are slightly less than al dente, because they will be cooked a second time.
Note: The salt and some of the green beans flavor will infuse the noodles.
15. Drain the water from the pot and melt the butter over a medium heat.
16. Add the flour and cook stirring constantly for one minute.
Tip: This is a white roux that will add very little in the way of flavor, but it makes a good thickening agent.
17. Add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds more.
18. Add the milk, a bit at a time, and Whisk the sauce until it has started to thicken.
Tip: Heating the milk in the microwave for two minutes in a two cup measuring cup helps keep the roux from breaking and keeps the sauce smooth.
19. Stir in the cheese, a bit at a time, whisking constantly.
20. When the cheese is completely melted, add the white pepper. Continue whisking to mix.
Tip: It is not necessary to add more salt to this recipe, because the Parmigiano-Reggiano is a fairly salty cheese.
21. Add the noodles to the cheese sauce and toss to mix and coat the noodles.
Tip: if the sauce is a bit too thick add a tablespoon or two of water to thin it.
22. Pam a large baking dish/pan and lay the green beans, in an even layer, across the bottom.
23. Spread the noodles and sauce over the beans.
Tip: Use a spatula to scrape all of the sauce out of the pot and to get the noodles into the corners of the pan.
24. Scatter the chicken slices over the noodles and put the baking dish, on the middle rack, into a 500º F oven and bake for about 10-15 minutes.
25. Remove the baking dish from the oven and sprinkle the Mozzarella on top.
26. Return the pan to the oven, still on the middle rack, and switch the oven from bake to broil. Broil until the cheese is starting to brown well (about another 10 minutes).
27. Garnish the noodles with a few gratings of fresh nutmeg and serve.