Tuscan Chicken Mac and Cheese
Negotiations over who has rights to which leftovers generally proceed fairly cordially in our home—unless those leftovers happen to be this Tuscan Chicken Mac and Cheese, in which case I call dibs.
A creamy, colorful skillet of whole wheat pasta noodles, vibrant sun-dried tomatoes, juicy pieces of herby chicken breast, and fresh spinach, all wrapped in a velvety cheese sauce, this Italian spin on the ultimate comfort classic will have members of your family jostling for extra servings.
Now that Ben and I are both working from home full time, figuring out lunches took a few weeks of adjustment (seriously, we’re out of food, AGAIN? How much do you eat?), but we hit a decent rhythm.
Then, this mac and cheese with chicken happened.
How it usually goes: I make a big, healthy pasta recipe like this Tuscan chicken mac and cheese one or two nights a week. We eat a portion for dinner, then Ben eats most of the leftovers for lunch. I’m usually happy with something like this Italian Farro Salad for my lunch, and no one goes hangry.
This Tuscan chicken mac? DIFFERENT STORY.
I can’t say it’s too good to share—not because it isn’t but because I’m not cold-hearted enough to deny members of my household access to a bubbly, cheesy pot of macaroni— but it is certainly too good not to make sure you enjoy the full amount of your allotted portion.
And maybe a little bit of the other person’s portion if you can beat them to the refrigerator the next day.
Like my holy grail of comfort Adult Mac and Cheese, this quick recipe is cooked on the stovetop, my preferred easy method for making mac and cheese. Watching the velvety sauce come together as you stir is a moment you’ll savor.
I lightened up the recipe with a few everyday swaps like whole wheat pasta noodles in place of white and milk in place of heavy cream. It tastes so indulgent, I pinky promise no one (including yourself!) will suspect.
How to Make Tuscan Chicken Mac and Cheese
Have a skillet, a pasta pot, and an appetite? Perfect! You’re ready to make this easy mac and cheese.
The ingredients in Tuscan chicken mac and cheese are a spin on Tuscan chicken, an Italian-American restaurant dish consisting of chicken simmered in a rich sauce made of heavy cream, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, and spinach.
This mac and cheese channels that spirit into a stovetop pasta. I honestly prefer it to the original! Where there is cheesy sauce, there should be noodles.
- Pasta. Whenever possible, I try to use whole wheat pasta, which is higher in fiber and nutrients than white pasta and can keep you fuller for longer. For this recipe, I like a shorter tube-shaped pasta, such as fusilli, penne, rigatoni, shells, or elbows.
- Sun-Dried Tomatoes. Sun-dried tomatoes add intense, concentrated flavor. Every time I eat them, I can’t help but think of the sunny Italian countryside! For this recipe, you’ll want sun-dried tomatoes in oil, which are typically sold in a jar or can. This recipe uses them two ways to take maximum advantage of their prowess: the tomatoes themselves, which add pops taste and color, and the oil in which they are packed, which also offers flavor and is the starting point of the creamy cheese sauce. Yum and yum.
- Chicken. A go-to source of lean protein. Boneless skinless chicken breasts and thighs both will work well in this recipe. For a vegetarian option, see suggestion in Recipe Variations below.
- Butter. For richness and added flavor that’s sure to please everyone at your table.
- Milk. Whole milk makes the sauce wonderfully creamy and decadent. If you’re looking for a little less decadence, you can try this with 2% milk instead. For ultimate decadence, swap out a portion of the milk for half and half.
- Italian Seasoning. A bang-for-your-buck herby powerhouse. Italian seasoning is a wonderful way to incorporate layers of flavor with just one ingredient.
- Cheese. A star of our mac and cheese show. A combination of mozzarella and sharp cheddar create the most spectacular flavor. If possible, I HIGHLY recommend grating the cheese yourself right from the block. Actually, I insist. It will result in a much smoother, creamier sauce than the pre-shredded kind, which is usually coated in a starch that keeps it from clumping but that makes it harder to melt smoothly.
- Spinach. I love adding a little green to my Tuscan mac and cheese, and spinach works perfectly. Plus, it’s packed with Vitamin-C and iron. Think about that as you’re scooping a second serving.
- Fresh Herbs. An optional but delightful addition. Basil or parsley are perfect here.
- Cook the pasta and reserve part of the pasta water before draining it.
- Reserve some of the oil from the tomatoes, then pat the tomatoes dry and chop them.
- Brown the chicken in a skillet until cooked through, then add the reserved sun-dried tomato oil and butter. Add the tomatoes and flour, then the milk. Simmer to create the sauce.
- Add the grated cheese, then remove the skillet from the stove, and add the pasta, chicken, and spinach. Stir until everything is nicely incorporated and the sauce is creamy. Serve with fresh herbs and ENJOY!
What to Serve with Tuscan Chicken Mac and Cheese
- Salad. A light and easy salad like this Anytime Arugula Salad would pair nicely with the Tuscan flavors in this dish.
- Vegetables. Bring more veggies to your table by serving this mac and cheese with a side of Roasted Brussels Sprouts or Roasted Zucchini.
- Bread. Always a good choice, especially with Italian-inspired recipes like this one.
Make-Ahead and Storage Tips
- To Make Ahead. Cut your chicken into bite-sized pieces up to 1 day in advance, and store them in the refrigerator. You can also grate your cheeses up to 1 day in advance, storing them in a separate container in the refrigerator.
- To Store. Place leftover mac and cheese in an airtight storage container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
- To Reheat. Gently rewarm leftovers in a large skillet on the stove over medium-low heat, adding splashes of milk (water works in a pinch) as needed to thin the sauce. You can also reheat this dish in the microwave.
- To Freeze. Store mac and cheese in an airtight freezer-safe storage container in the freezer for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.
- To Make Vegetarian. Omit the chicken and stir in 1 (15-ounce) can of rinsed, drained white beans, such as cannellini.
- To Make Gluten Free. Use gluten free pasta and a 1:1 all-purpose flour substitute like this one.
- Change Up the Chicken. Instead of making this mac and cheese with chicken breast, you can use chicken thighs. Or take a note from this Sun-Dried Tomato Pasta with Sausage and use try a mild Italian sausage (I like chicken or turkey sausage).
More Italian-Inspired Recipes To Love
- Chicken Cacciatore
- Italian Stuffed Peppers
- Sheet Pan Italian Chicken
- Zucchini Boats (Italian style)
- Italian Breakfast Bowl
- Italian Turkey Burgers
Recommended Tools to Make this Recipe
- Large Skillet. Ideal for preparing this mac and cheese, and it looks beautiful for serving it too.
- Cheese Grater. A box grater or a microplane grater will work well here (the microplane is my go-to).
- Pasta Insert. If you cook a lot of pasta, having a pot with the insert for easy draining and preserving of your pasta water is a game changer.
Despite what our household quibbling might suggest, this tasty Tuscan chicken mac and cheese does yield a generous portion. The fact that we went through it as quickly as we did is a testament to its quality, not its quantity.
Leftovers (ha!) will last well into the week, though if your household behaves anything like ours, I suggest grabbing your additional servings soon, before they disappear.
Tuscan Chicken Mac and Cheese
- 8 ounces whole-wheat pasta - fusilli, penne, rigatoni, rotini, shells, elbow, or a similar “short” pasta
- 1 7-ounce jar sun-dried tomatoes in oil
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil - divided
- 1 1/4 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs - cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt - divided
- 1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper - divided
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup whole milk - 2% also works; swap part for half and half for incredible richness
- 1 ½ teaspoons Italian seasoning
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 cup shredded part skim mozzarella cheese - about 4 ounces
- 1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese - about 4 ounces
- 4 cups loosely packed baby spinach - about 4 handfuls
- Chopped fresh basil or parsley - optional for serving
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook the pasta in the water until pasta is al dente, according to package directions. Gather the rest of your ingredients (even the spices) and make sure they are measured and on hand. Once the pasta has finished cooking, reserve about 1 cup of the pasta water. Drain the pasta and set aside.
- Meanwhile, reserve 2 tablespoons of oil from the jar of sun-dried tomatoes, then drain away the remaining oil. Pat the tomatoes dry, then roughly chop and set aside.
- Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil. Once it is hot, add the chicken pieces. Sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Saute until the chicken is golden on the outside and fully cooked through on the inside, about 5 minutes. Remove to a plate and set aside.
- To the skillet, add the reserved sun-dried tomato oil and the butter. Once the butter melts, add the sun-dried tomatoes and remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Sprinkle the flour over the top, then cook and stir for 1 minute, until the white bits of flour disappear. The pan will seem dry.
- Slowly pour in the milk, stirring as you go. Bring to a simmer. Stir in the Italian seasoning, garlic powder, and remaining ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Let simmer until very slightly thickened, about 2 minutes.
- Stir in the cheese until smooth. Turn off the heat and stir in the drained pasta and reserved chicken. Add the spinach a few handfuls at a time, until the spinach wilts and is fully incorporated. If the sauce is too thick at any point, splash in a little bit of the reserved pasta water as needed. It should be rich, creamy, and nicely coat the noodles. Enjoy hot, with a sprinkle of fresh basil or parsley as desired.
- TO STORE: Place leftover mac and cheese in an airtight storage container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
- TO REHEAT: Gently rewarm leftovers in a large skillet on the stove over medium-low heat, adding splashes of milk as needed to thin the sauce. You can also reheat this dish in the microwave.
- TO FREEZE: Store mac and cheese in an airtight freezer-safe storage container in the freezer for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.
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