Being from the South, I was raised under the strict belief that “you never show up empty-handed.”
Whether I’m attending a dinner, spending a weekend as a houseguest, or just popping by for coffee, I always try to show up with a little something. The gift depends on the level of severity of my imposition: a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates from a local chocolatier, or, best of all, something homemade from my kitchen.
Homemade food is a love language where I grew up in North Carolina, something that was passed to me from my mother, and to my mother from her mother. Making food for the people I love is central to who I am; it’s a part of my DNA.
For Every Occasion
When someone dies in the South, that person’s family members are bombarded with casseroles for weeks upon weeks. Funerals are practically synonymous with casseroles. Though they get a bad reputation for being full of fattening ingredients like butter and cream, casseroles are powerhouses: they feed a ton of people, and can be refrigerated or frozen and heated up whenever they’re needed.
They are the ultimate food to drop off for a friend in need of a comforting pick-me-up.
But funerals aren’t the only time that Southerners turn to food as a display of love and affection. The week before my wedding, my mom’s best friends dropped off chicken salad, sandwiches, freshly baked cookies, and hoards of other fuel to keep us going until showtime. I’d hardly classify throwing a wedding as a “time of need,” but the gesture was so deeply appreciated in those final days of pre-wedding mayhem.
My personal favorite time to give food as a gift is when friends have a baby. I never truly appreciated just how hungry and exhausted new parents are until I had my own baby nine months ago. I devoured whatever casserole, frittata, or baked pasta came through the door.
My husband George and I live in California, across the country from most of our friends and family, but our East Coast loved ones still found creative ways to get food into our hungry, sleep-deprived bodies.
My friend Mary Pell overnighted a box of her famous chocolate chip cookies the day our son was born, so that they’d be waiting on us when we got home from the hospital. My friend Martha lives in New York, but found out which restaurants in our town delivered, and sent us cheeseburgers and pie one evening. Shane and Brit live down in San Diego, but encouraged us to get out of the house for an early dinner with the baby, and then called the restaurant where we were eating and picked up the tab.
Recently, a friend of ours in Carmel has been in and out of the hospital, and I’ve dropped off a few meals. He and his wife stick to a rather healthy diet, but I also knew that during this time, what they needed was hearty, warming comfort food.
George and I are absolutely obsessed with the frozen cauliflower gnocchi from Trader Joe’s—they have a super clean, minimal ingredient list, and let you eat an overflowing bowl of gnocchi without feeling stuffed. Using that as a jumping-off point, I created this chicken parmesan meets pasta bake with the intention of delivering a lean, healthful protein (ground chicken), a hearty starch (the cauliflower gnocchi), and a whole lot of comfort (a fabulous red sauce and plenty of cheese).
Since creating this dish for our friends, we’ve since made it several times at home for ourselves. George and I love cooking together after we’ve put the baby to bed, but this recipe is great for busy days when we know we won’t be able to cook together, but will still need a delicious, nourishing meal.
During the day, I can throw this recipe together while feeding the baby his breakfast or lunch, and place the whole skillet in the refrigerator for George to retrieve in the evening. He can bake it while I’m putting the baby to sleep, and by the time I come out of the nursery, a bubbling, cheesy skillet of chicken parm gnocchi will be waiting for me. The best part? The only dirty dishes are one knife, a cutting board, a spatula, and a skillet.
One-Skillet Baked Chicken Parm Gnocchi
Serves 2 hungry eaters
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 large shallot, minced
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 pound ground chicken
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons oregano (or Italian seasoning)
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
- 1 (12-ounce) bag Trader Joe’s Cauliflower Gnocchi, frozen
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan, plus more for garnish
- 4 ounces fresh mozzarella (this is 1/2 of a standard mozzarella ball)
- Optional: chopped parsley, to garnish
Preheat the oven broiler.
Warm oil in an 8-inch skillet over medium heat. Add shallot and cook for about 2 minutes, until softened. Add garlic and continue cooking for 30 seconds.
Add ground chicken, salt, oregano, and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring frequently and using a spatula to break up the meat, until chicken is cooked through and any liquid has evaporated. Stir in the tomatoes, gnocchi, and tomato paste and raise heat to medium-high. Cook until meat sauce is thickened and no longer watery, 4–5 minutes. Stir in parmesan.
Smooth out the top of the gnocchi and meat sauce. Tear up the mozzarella with your hands and evenly distribute on top.
Broil for 3–5 minutes, until mozzarella is melted and beginning to brown.
Garnish with parmesan and parsley, if using, and enjoy!
Don’t have a Trader Joe’s where you live? Just use regular gnocchi. You’ll have to cook it before using it in this recipe.
If giving this meal as a gift, purchase the smallest disposable aluminum tray that you can find, and transfer the mixture to the tray after stirring in the parmesan. Top with mozzarella, wrap tightly with plastic wrap or aluminum foil, and freeze or refrigerate. Include instructions to bake at 400 degrees F for 20 minutes from refrigerated, or 30 minutes from frozen.
Caroline Chambers is a recipe developer, food writer, and author of “Just Married: A Cookbook for Newlyweds.” She currently lives in Carmel, Calif., with her husband, George, and baby boy, Mattis. Follow her on Instagram for cooking tips and snippets from her life in Northern California @carochambers