Southwest Mac & Cheese with Optional Chicken

I really wasn’t sure if I should call this “Tex-Mex” or “southwestern” or just “mac and cheese with black beans, corn, chilies, and a bit of a spicy twist with optional chicken if you want.”  The first felt too generic, the last clearly too long and too, well, dumb … and so the middle-of-the-road it was: southwest mac and cheese.

Which is not to say this recipe is middle of the road. I think it’s … well, there’s really no place in the road to describe something as being better than middle of the road, is there? It’s better than middle of the road.

I know, I know. Enough about the road!

Tex mex mac  and cheese with optional chicken | Kitchen Treaty

This sort-of south-of-the-border twist on classic mac and cheese (using the best macaroni and cheese recipe ever as the starting point) is, simply, a pretty dang neat variation from the norm. Black beans, corn, mild green chilies (or hot, depending on your preference), chili powder, and optional chunks of chicken join up with an uber-creamy, cheesy pasta topped with a sprinkle of crushed tortilla chips. And then baked to perfection.

Tex Mex Mac and Cheese with Optional Chicken | Kitchen Treaty

Okay, so I have to veer off from the food description for a moment. I totally know these photos are terrible. I was rushing around, spilling water (see upper left), spilling mac and cheese (see upper middle), having serious problems with my camera’s white balance (hello, bad 70s cookbook), a toddler was clinging to my legs as she teetered on the edge of a meltdown, the dish color was a truly unfortunate choice, and I really should have sprinkled a bit of cilantro or something on the top to at least make the dish look a little prettier.

I just want you to know I know the photos are bad. Though I think I was at least able to successfully convey the cheesiness in this one?

Tex mex mac  and cheese with optional chicken | Kitchen Treaty

Anyway! Back to the food.

I really do love this variation of mac and cheese because it includes a nice little dose of fiber and extra protein thanks to the addition of black beans. And because it lends itself well to throwing in some chunks of chicken for the meat-eaters in your life. And because it’s a little different. And because it’s really tasty.

A note about heat

The recipe as it’s listed is pretty mild (kid-friendly is where my head is at these days), but it does benefit from a bit of heat if you’re down with that. Swap out the mild chilies for hot, throw in a pinch (or several of) cayenne, and a shake a dash or two of Tabasco sauce on in with the sauce. I won’t judge. In fact, I might be a little jealous.

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Southwest Mac & Cheese with Optional Chicken

A south-of-the-border twist on classic mac and cheese. Black beans, corn, mild green chilies (or hot, depending on your preference), chili powder, and optional chunks of chicken for the meat-eaters join up with an uber-creamy, cheesy pasta topped with a sprinkle of crushed tortilla chips. And then baked to perfection.

Ingredients:

  • 8 oz. (1/2 pound or about 1 3/4 cups) macaroni or other medium tubular pasta (like pennette or penne)
  • 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded monterey jack cheese
  • 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt (or 1/2 teaspoon table salt)
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika (plus more for sprinkling on top)
  • 2 1/2 cups milk (I like 2% milk best, but whole works too)
  • 1 cup frozen corn kernels
  • 1 4-ounce can mild green chilies
  • 1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed (or 2 cups cooked black beans)
  • 1/3 cup crushed tortilla chips (about 3/4 cup whole)

If adding optional chicken to half of the mac and cheese:

  • 1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cooked and diced*

If adding optional chicken to all:

  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cooked and diced*

Directions:

  1. Boil the pasta until al dente, according to package directions. Drain and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking, and return to the pan you boiled it in. Set aside.
  2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Set out six individual, oven-safe ramekins or gratin dishes for individual servings, two 5″x8″ baking dishes if you’re cooking up one dish with meat and one without, or an 8″x8″/two-quart baking dish if cooking it all in one big batch.
  3. In a medium bowl, toss together the cheddar, monterey jack, and Parmesan cheeses. Set aside.
  4. Over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the flour, salt, dry mustard, chili powder, pepper, and 1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika. Stir constantly over medium heat for about three minutes.
  5. Slowly whisk in the milk. Continuing over medium heat, whisk frequently for about 10 minutes, until the sauce thickens (as the sauce gets thicker, I recommend going from frequent stirs to constant stirs to help avoid burning).
  6. Remove from heat, and stir in 2 cups of the cheese. Continue stirring until cheese is melted, then add the green chilies and corn. Stir until combined. Select your version from the options below to continue.
Vegetarian version:
  1. Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta. Add the black beans. Toss gently until the pasta and beans are completely coated. Pour half of the pasta mixture into individual baking dishes or half of the mixture into one large baking dish, as desired. Evenly cover the pasta with half of the remaining cheese, then add the remaining pasta mixture. Top with remaining cheese. Sprinkle with crushed tortilla chips and dust lightly with a pinch or two of smoked paprika.
  2. Bake for about 20-25 minutes, until slightly dry and a bit brown on top. Serve.
Half vegetarian/half meaty version:
  1. Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta. Add the black beans. Toss gently until the pasta and beans are completely coated.
  2. Pour 1/4 of the pasta mixture into a medium 8″x5″ baking dish or into individual baking dishes, as desired. (If cooking in individual baking dishes, a good rule of thumb is about 1/2 cup of pasta per dish, then add a cheese layer, then another 1/2 cup, cheese, and then tortilla chips). Sprinkle half of the remaining cheese onto the pasta, then add the remaining pasta and top with the rest of the cheese. Sprinkle with crushed tortilla chips and dust lightly with a pinch or two of smoked paprika.
  3. Gently toss the chicken with the remaining pasta mixture. Repeat above step for assembling macaroni and cheese in its baking dish(es).
  4. Bake for about 20-25 minutes, until slightly dry and a bit brown on top. Serve.
All meat version:
  1. Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta. Add the black beans and the chicken. Toss gently until the noodles, beans, and chicken are completely coated. Divide half of the pasta between individual baking dishes or pour half into one large baking dish, as desired. Sprinkle half of the remaining cheese onto the pasta mixture, than add the remaining pasta and top with the rest of the cheese. Sprinkle with crushed tortilla chips and dust lightly with a pinch or two of smoked paprika.
  2. Bake for about 20-25 minutes, until slightly dry and a bit brown on top. Serve.

* I rub boneless, skinless chicken breasts with olive oil, kosher salt, and black pepper, then bake at 375 degrees for about 30 – 40 minutes until cooked through (and I always use a meat thermometer to check to make sure it’s completely done).

All images and text © for Kitchen Treaty.

More macaroni and cheese recipes:

Karen Raye

Kare is a vegetarian home cook living among carnivores. She loves creating irresistible and flexible recipes that help multi-vore families like hers keep the peace - deliciously.