Being in a multi-year relationship, you start to lose touch with the whole concept of dating. Especially if you’re living together, so much of the mating etiquette that surrounds the first few months of courtship melt away. You start feeling no shame in rolling around the apartment in oversized sweatpants and ratty band t-shirts; there’s no judgment passed or expectations unmet when (after too much pizza, wine and a few Tums) you’re passed out in the fetal position, above the covers.
To casually date now, as a twenty-something, in a time of not just Facebook and Twitter but also Tinder, Ello, and Cuddlr, appears tedious, traumatic and only palatable with Valium in arm’s reach.
But when your first few dates with a potential piece of relationship material happen within the context of college, expectations (for better or for worse) are relaxed. Life is more casual: no one is expected to have an exceptionally clean, well-curated apartment; money and jobs are faraway priorities. Showing up to a rendezvous in more than jeans and a t-shirt is a big deal. Cooking a meal for someone else? Monumental.
It was a big deal when, after less than six months of dating, my college junior boyfriend offered to make me dinner – dinner that involved more than boiling water for pasta, or searing an unshapely piece of meat. A well-rounded meal with a protein, a grain and even a green vegetable.
It was a chicken casserole; something unlike anything I’d ever had before, although slightly reminiscent of the beef stroganoff I used to fear as a child. The simple mixture of diced chicken breast, rice and broccoli (frozen) set to stew with a can of condensed chicken soup was not the most colorful dish, and sure, it could’ve benefitted from something with a crunch. But what it lacked in flavor it compensated for in emotional significance.
Because when a 20 year-old boy who subsists off of Chipotle burritos and Bubba Burgers has even the slightest inclination to spend 30+ minutes making you a meal, you start to see how he sees you: as someone who deserves more than a slice of pizza or a hoagie you pay for yourself; someone worthy of effort, someone who he’ll put in the time for.
Recently, we revisited the meal that started it all. With a kitchen of our own, a few extra years of ingredient-handling wisdom and the requisite recipe cross-referencing, I think I’m much closer to giving this dish that respect it deserves. It takes more than a half hour to make now, but each step is still manageable enough for even the first-time, “how can I impress this person I’ve gone on four dates with” cook. I’m not promising that it’ll make your dining partner swoon in an instant, but you’ll at least buy yourself another date.
Makes ~4-6 servings; Adapted from Saveur
1 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts
1/3 c onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt, ground black pepper, and paprika
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large head broccoli (or two smaller ones), stemmed and cut into 1″–2″ florets
4 tbsp butter (plus more to grease the skillet/casserole dish if needed)
1⁄4 c flour
1 c chicken stock
1 c milk
3 tbsp dry marsala wine
1/2 c grated parmigiano-reggiano
1/2 c sliced mushrooms, washed
1/2 c heavy cream
1/4 c panko breadcrumbs
Preheat the oven to 375º. Season both sides of your defrosted chicken with salt, pepper and paprika.
In a large, oven proof, cast iron skillet, heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil until shimmering. Add the onion and garlic, sautéing over medium-high heat until the onion is translucent. Add the chicken breasts and cook on each side for 3-4 minutes (if thick) to get a decent sear all around. Place the skillet in the oven, cooking anywhere from 15-25 minutes, depending on the chicken thickness. Transfer the chicken to a plate and carve into 1/4-inch thick slices.
While the chicken’s baking, place the broccoli in a large pot and cover with water. Bring this to a boil over medium heat, then reduce a simmer for 2-3 minutes. The florets should stay al dente. Drain and set aside.
In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the 4 tablespoons of butter. Add the flour and mix thoroughly for 1 minute, then gradually pour in the stock and milk. Keep on stirring regularly for around 10 minutes; the sauce should get noticeably thick. Next, add the wine, some salt, pepper and 1/4 c of the grated cheese. Stir for another minute or two, until the cheese is totally melted, and remove from heat.
Grab the same skillet you did before (or a separate casserole dish if you’re well stocked). Grease it down with a little butter or cooking spray if you feel it needs it. Arrange the broccoli and mushroom slices evenly across the bottom, tossing the rest of the parm on top. Now layer the chicken slices on top of that.
In yet another large bowl, beat the heavy cream until “soft peaks” form. (Without an electric mixer, I think this is impossible. So I just whisked away violently for around 30 seconds. #Science.) Fold this into the cheese sauce, then carefully pour the whole mixture over the contents of your skillet/dish. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and bake for ~30 minutes, until golden and bubbling and fully representative of your true feelings.