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August 17, 2017

Cheesy Chicken and Orzo Casserole

It's crunch time at my internship, and I know most of you are busy going back to school or preparing to send your kids back to school. Basically, it's that time of year where you want to keep eating healthy and cooking but there's hardly any time. That's why I love recipes like this casserole, which is a full meal on its own, keeps the dishes to a minimum, and has plenty of leftovers. Here, I get to use all my favorite Italian flavors and bake them up together with plenty of cheese. It's cozy and comforting but still incredibly easy to make.


The orzo makes up the base of the dish. You can theoretically use whatever pasta you want, but orzo is quick and the texture works well for a casserole. If you've never had it before, it's essentially pasta shaped like grains of rice, so you get that texture without the finicky cooking process (you could also just use rice if you prefer). I add chicken broth to the cooking liquid for maximum flavor, and I make sure not to rinse the pasta when it's done cooking to preserve the starches on the outside. Yes, rinsing pasta with water cools it down and stops the cooking process, but I'm going to need you to stop that this instant. Rinsing off those lovely starches prevents the sauce from sticking later on, and if you're really worried about overcooking your pasta just take it out a minute earlier. I don't even cook the orzo through here anyway since it continues to cook in the oven, so rinsing it certainly won't help you.


The proteins get cooked next; I use sausage for extra flavor and heartiness, specifically a (spicy) Italian sausage. Once it's nice and brown, you're left with a good layer of seasoned fat in the pan to cook the rest of the ingredients in. This is particularly useful if you're using raw chicken, but if you'd like to use a diced rotisserie chicken to save time (totally understandable), it's just as good for cooking the vegetables in later. If you're not a sausage person, you can just increase the amount of chicken, or you can scrap my recommendations entirely and switch to ground beef or ground turkey. This recipe is extremely easy to adapt, so be creative with your proteins.


Once all the meats are cooked, I brown the garlic and onions in the residual fat. Those are mixed with tomato paste, Italian herbs, and some fresh tomatoes to bulk it up a bit. I know tomato season is sadly coming to an end, so canned petite diced tomatoes will work fine in the cooler months. That only has to cook for a few minutes before you return the meats to the pan and add the orzo, cheese, and a bit of chicken broth to allow the orzo to cook through. You can also add in some more vegetables like spinach or eggplant for a healthier dish.


Since all the meat is cooked and the orzo is most of the way there, we are really just baking this to make everything hot and gooey and bubbly. I bake mine for 15-20 minutes so the pasta doesn't get too mushy but it all has a chance to cook together. There will likely be leftovers as well, so you can either microwave them or pop them back in the oven for a few minutes until they are hot again. It's the perfect back-to-school dinner (or just a general crazy weeknight dinner) since you can get your meat, carbs, and veggies all in one bite and still have enough for lunch the next day.

2 1/2 Cups Chicken Broth
1 1/2 Cups Orzo
1/2 lb Italian Sausage
1 1/2 lbs Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breast, Diced (or rotisserie chicken)
1 Small Onion, Diced
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3/4 lbs Tomatoes, Diced (or 1 can petite diced tomatoes)
2 T Tomato Paste
1/2 tsp Basil
1/2 tsp Oregano
1/2 tsp Thyme
1 tsp Garlic Powder
1 tsp Onion Powder
2 Cups Shredded Mozzarella
1/2 Cup Shredded Parmesan
Spinach, Diced Eggplant, etc. (Optional)

Heat oven to 350ºF and grease a 7x11" glass pan.

Bring 2 cups chicken broth and 3 cups water to a boil in a small or medium pot. Add the orzo and boil for 6 minutes. Drain but do not rinse.

Heat some oil in a large pot. Brown the sausage, remove, and dice. Season the chicken with salt and pepper, sear in the drippings, and remove. Add the onions to the pot and cook for 4 minutes or until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes and cook for 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the tomato paste, parcooked orzo, and 1/2 cup chicken broth. Add the sausage, chicken, basil, oregano, thyme, garlic powder, and onion powder. Stir in 1 cup mozzarella and the parmesan. Add the vegetables, if using.

Transfer the mixture to the prepared dish and sprinkle with the remaining mozzarella. Bake for 18 minutes or until brown and bubbly.

Serves 8
Recipe Adapted from Cooking and Beer

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