The idea of this dish appealed to me for several reasons. I love pasta in all seasons, but I particularly like baked pasta (of the macaroni and cheese variety) during the fall and winter months. Last November I posted an old favorite with cauliflower and tomatoes. I also noticed this recipe because I have been going through my freezer to prepare for the holidays and discovered a small container of shredded roast chicken that I wanted to use up—it turned out to be the perfect amount. (For those of you who don't happen to have roast chicken in your freezer—and who don't want to roast one just for this dish—you could use a purchased rotisserie chicken.) But I really think the thing that made me stop and take a second look at this recipe was the presence of the kale.
I have been enjoying the local kale crop so much this fall. I have brought home a bag almost every week. Chard has been a favorite of mine for years, but it is only in the last several years that I have really discovered kale. Kale is more substantial than chard—both in texture and in taste. It is also very good for you. Perhaps this sounds strange, but eating it makes me feel healthy—not in an "eat this, it's good for you" sense, but in an all around well-being sense of feeling happy, well-fed and well-nourished. In other words, it is a truly satisfying thing to eat. Kale has a slightly bitter, mineral-y taste that I love. It is especially good when paired with starchy foods—potatoes, bread, grains, beans....and pasta.
I'm not sure it was necessary for me to post a recipe that is really just a simple variation of my favorite macaroni and cheese. But it struck me as a rather timely variation. It is, of course, almost Thanksgiving. And although you might not have any roast chicken on hand, you will in all likelihood have leftover roast turkey taking up space in your refrigerator in the very near future.
Baked Pasta with Kale & Chicken
2 T. butter
1 small onion (5 oz.), diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 bunch kale, ribs removed, and rinsed in several changed of water
6 oz. (about 1 cup) shredded roast chicken (or turkey)
2 cups whole milk
2 T. butter
3 T. all-purpose flour
6 oz. shell pasta
4 oz. Dubliner plus 2 oz. sharp white Cheddar, coarsely grated—these are the cheeses that I had on hand, but you can use 6 oz. of any combination of good melting cheeses that you like (Gruyère, Gouda, etc.)
1/3 c. (1 oz.) grated Parmesan
Preheat the oven to 350°. Generously butter a 1 1/2 quart gratin or casserole and set aside.
In a medium-sized sauté pan, melt the butter over moderate heat. Add the onion, along with a pinch of salt, and sweat the onions are tender and are beginning to caramelize—bout 10 to 15 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Set aside.
While the onions cook, blanch the kale in a pot of boiling salted water until tender. Lift the kale out and spread on a baking sheet to cool. When cool, squeeze out the excess moisture, one handful at a time. Chop coarsely. Add the kale to the cooked onions and toss to combine. Taste and correct the seasoning and set aside.
Prepare the béchamel: In a large saucepan, bring the milk to a simmer; keep hot. In another large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When the foam subsides, whisk in the flour. Cook stirring constantly for a few minutes—the roux will be bubbly and straw yellow. Remove from the heat and pour in half of the hot milk, whisking constantly until smooth—it will thicken immediately. Add the remaining milk. Return to the heat and stir constantly until the sauce returns to a simmer. Taste and season as desired with salt and pepper.
Cook the pasta in a large pot of rapidly boiling water seasoned generously with salt. Stir and cook until the pasta is al dente (since it will continue to cook as it bakes with the sauce, it can be left quite firm). Drain the pasta.
In a large bowl, combine the chicken, kale mixture, béchamel and pasta.
Add the cheese and quickly fold in—the cheese does not have to melt. Turn the mixture into the prepared pan. Scatter the Parmesan over the top and place on a baking sheet.
Bake until hot through—about 20 to 25 minutes. If necessary, place under the broiler (about 4 inches from the heat) until the top is golden. Serves 3 to 4
Note: This recipe doubles easily to feed a larger group. Use a 13- by 9-inch (3 quart) baking dish.