Do you watch the Food Network channel? I do; I love it! One of my favorite shows is “Chopped,” where chefs are challenged with a mystery basket of ingredients. I am always amazed how they can take seemingly unrelated ingredients and transform them into a delicious dish. I had my opportunity to challenge myself with a pantry of mystery ingredients when I was at a friend’s home and unexpectedly found myself making lunch for a group of twelve. Without going into details, this wasn’t a planned gathering, so no shopping had been done, so when folks became hungry, it was time to get creative and use what was available in the fridge and pantry.
The good news is that we did have a store-bought rotisserie chicken; the bad news is that a small rotisserie chicken wasn’t going to feed nine adults and three small kids. My challenge was being in an unfamiliar kitchen and unknown pantry. I assembled an interesting assortment of organic pasta, a can of Rotel tomatoes and green chiles, cream of chicken and cream of mushroom soup, a package of sliced Velveeta cheese, a large bag of shredded cheese, sour cream, and onion, and some spices.
That’s when it hit me. I could make my Southwestern version of mac and cheese with chicken. It’s a perfect dish to make a little chicken go a long way. It’s a delicious, filling, and kid-friendly casserole. Who doesn’t love mac & cheese? Chicken with a Southwest flare kicks it up for a perfect crowd-pleasing meal. The diced tomatoes and chiles, along with the spices, provide the flavor. The Velveeta makes a creamy sauce. A block of Velveeta would be ideal, but that wasn’t an option, so I unwrapped 16 individual slices of Velveeta.
To get prepped, spray a 9×13 inch baking pan with non-stick spray and preheat the oven. The chicken is deboned and chopped, the onion cut, and the paste prepared per the package directions. Nothing complicated – unwrapping all those cheese slices took more time than prepping the chicken! I cooked the onion in a bit of butter using a large saucepan and added the tomatoes and Velveeta, cooking until melted. The other ingredients, including the cooked pasta, are then added and stirred until combined, and the shredded cheese melts. The mixture is then transferred into the prepared baking dish and baked for a half hour. I’m delighted to report it tuned out FABULOUS! Everyone (age 2 -86) enjoyed my mystery pantry meal!
Southwest Chicken Mac & CheeseCourse: Main, Side DishDifficulty: Easy
This easy crowd-pleasing lunch or a dinner side dish is packed with chunky chicken, spicy tomatoes, and lots of creamy, cheesy goodness! It’s a kicked-up version of macaroni and cheese with a southwestern flair that is mild enough to be kid-friendly, with enough flavor to satisfy the grown-ups!
1 (16-oz.) package pasta (ziti, shells, elbow, penne) cooked according to package
¼ cup butter
1 medium onion, diced
1 (10-oz.) can diced tomatoes and green chiles
16 ounces processed cheese (Velveeta) cubed
1 rotisserie chicken, chopped (4 cups)
2 (10 3/4-oz.) can cream of chicken soup
1 cup sour cream
2 teaspoon chili powder
2 teaspoon ground cumin
4 cups shredded Cheddar cheese, divided
Optional: Cilantro for garnish
- Prep: Preheat oven to 350°. Generously coat a 9×13 baking pan with non-stick spray. Prepare pasta according to package directions (drain and set aside). Chop chicken and dice the onion.
- Melt the butter in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion and sauté 5 minutes or until tender. Stir in tomatoes and green chiles and the Velveeta; cook, stirring constantly, 2 minutes or until cheese melts. Stir in chicken, soup, sour cream, chili powder, ground cumin, 3 cups shredded cheese, and hot cooked pasta until blended. Spoon mixture into the prepared 9×13 baking dish; sprinkle with shredded Cheddar cheese.
- Bake at 350° for 30-35 minutes or until bubbly. If desired garnish with cilantro.
- Pasta: Most pasta will work. Tube pasta (macaroni, elbow, penne, ziti, cavatappi) is best, however, shells (conchiglie) are also great in this dish.
- Cream of chicken soup: Substitute cream of mushroom, cream of celery, or a combination of the 3 varieties
- Zhoosh up: Add in mushrooms, garlic, or bell peppers for additional flavor. Add a jalapeno or serrano pepper to amp the heat.