Cheesy Chicken Asparagus Casserole
I spend the first few weeks of every March waiting for spring like it’s a tardy prom date. I sit impatiently on our porch, nails painted an optimistic pink, wondering exactly how long I can stand the chilly breeze before I need throw a coat over my dress. Surely spring hasn’t stood me up and will be here any moment—maybe it’s just being extra cautious driving over in the car it borrowed from its dad for the night.
Spring and I play this little game every year—or rather, spring plays, and I sit stubbornly outside in my flip flops, wrapped in a blanket and ignoring the wind that still carries a nip of winter. As soon as we have our first day above 65 degrees (last Friday), I decide that every subsequent day must also be warm, thus I must post margaritas on Instagram, wear sundresses, and behave in an otherwise springtime manner, even when we slip back into the 40s or (heaven forbid) it snows in April. This is spring in Wisconsin: a total tease.
Although I’m still waiting for the arrival of a spring I can bring home to mom—the spring that shows up on time, doesn’t use brief bouts of sunshine to toy with my emotions, and drives a convertible—at this point, I’ll happily to climb into the cab with any old spring, even one who’s unreliable and drives a dirty pick up truck, provided it’s brought me a bouquet of asparagus.
Asparagus is my favorite vegetable (shhhhhh, don’t tell Brussels sprouts), and its season is cruelly short, thus I’ve been serving it almost every night since the first batch of non-sickly-looking stalks showed up in our grocery store last week. While I love it simply roasted with salt and pepper as a side dish, most nights I prefer to cook all-in-one meals, like this Cheesy Chicken Asparagus Casserole.
Lean protein? Check. Dairy? Yep. Whole grains? Got it. Veggies? This casserole is a spring garden!
In addition to the asparagus, I included a bushel of spring carrots, which are particularly tender (if you can’t find carrots with their green tops still on, regular carrots are just fine), and any other favorite veggies like broccoli, peas, and spinach can be added or swapped.
Chunks of meaty chicken make this casserole hearty and filling, as does the addition of freekeh (an ancient grain that is similar to brown rice, but higher in protein and fiber). If you can’t find freekeh or want the casserole to be gluten free, quinoa is a perfect substitute.
Although I love every ingredient in this Chicken Asparagus Casserole, I recognize that not everyone shares my passion for vegetables. Enter: The Sauce. What makes this Cheesy Chicken Asparagus Casserole a hit even with veggie skeptics is an ultra-gooey cheese sauce that oozes into every single bite. It’s lightened up but still tastes so gloriously cozy and creamy (thank you Gouda), you’ll never suspect.
Cheesy Chicken Asparagus Casserole is light enough for the warm spring days that treat us, but comforting enough for the chilly spring days that tease us.
If you need me, I’ll be on my back porch, digging my fork into a second helping of Chicken Asparagus Casserole. Who needs a prom date?
Cheesy Chicken Asparagus Casserole
- 2 tablespoons olive oil — divided
- 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts — cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 small yellow onion — diced
- 1/2 cup all purpose flour
- 2 cups reduced sodium chicken broth
- 1 1/2 cups milk — (I used skim)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 cup uncooked freekeh — or uncooked quinoa
- 1 pound asparagus, — tough ends removed, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 bunch spring carrots — (8 to 10 ounces) peeled, cut into 1/4-inch coins
- 1/2 cup shredded cheese — (any kind that melts well, such as Gouda, Fontina Gruyere, or cheddar; I used Gouda)
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese — for topping
Place rack in the center of your oven and preheat to 375 degrees F. Coat a 9x13-inch deep baking dish with cooking spray and set aside.
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium high in a Dutch oven or large, deep skillet. Add the chicken and cook until the edges are brown, but the center is still slightly pink. Remove to a plate and set aside.
In the same skillet, heat remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and add the onion. Cook until beginning to brown and soften, about 3 minutes, then whisk in the flour. Cook until the flour is lightly brown, about 1 minute, then add the chicken broth. Increase heat to high, then continue whisking until the flour is smooth. Add the milk, salt, black pepper, garlic powder, and thyme. Cook and stir until the mixture bubbles and thickens, 3 to 5 minutes.
Remove pan from heat, then stir in the reserved chicken, frekkeh or quinoa, asparagus, carrots and 1/2 cup melty cheese (Gouda, Fontina, etc.). Transfer to the prepared baking dish and cover with aluminum foil.
Bake, covered, for 35 minutes, then uncover and stir the filling. Continue baking, uncovered, until the the freekeh is soft (or the quinoa is sprouted) and the chicken is cooked through, about 10 additional minutes. Some liquid may be bubbling at the top. Stir once more, then top with 1/4 cup Parmesan. Return to the oven until the cheese melts, about 3 minutes. Serve warm.
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