Penne Rustica Florentine

Penne Rustica Florentine
My favorite dish at Macaroni Grille is their Penne Rustica so I decided to make my own version at home and add a bit of Spinach to it. And I must say, YUM!

~Gratinata Sauce~ [I think that's just a fancy word for cheese]
3 TB butter
1 1/2 cups fresh grated parmesan [buy the block and grate just prior to using]
1/2 cup reduced fat cream cheese
2 cups 2% milk [ for Parmesan cheese to melt in anything but cream you HAVE to use the block you grate yourself]
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup white wine
1 tsp garlic powder [or 3 cloves crushed]
1 tsp onion powder [ or 1/4 cup diced super fine]
dash of black pepper
1/8 tsp dried Thyme
1/4 tsp crushed Rosemary

~ The Rest~
1/2 lb shrimp
 1 1/2 cup shredded chicken [ or 2 good sized cooked breasts, grilled or pan seared then sliced thin]
 1 1/2  cup firmly packed thawed frozen spinach
2 TB lemon juice
1/2-1 box penne pasta -- depending how you like your sauce to pasta ratio. I'm a glutton for sauce.

Ok, here's what I did:

      1.  In small sauce pan spread thawed chopped Spinach, don't worry about squeezing all the juice out-- just most. Add  2 Tbsp. lemon juice and about 1/2 tsp salt.  Let simmer on low, stirring occasionally while preparing cheese sauce.
      2.  Sauce: Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add about 1/4 cup and let get to simmer stage, add 1.5 cups of fresh parmesan and whisk until melted through, then add cubed cream cheese, broth, and a bit more milk-- whisk until melted**] 
      3. After cheeses are thoroughly melted, add rest of milk, salt, garlic, and spices. Whisk quickly, heating through. Now let simmer on low until you are ready to throw everything together. Even if it's not perfectly smooth, it all turns out great while everything bakes together in oven. Have faith here.
      4. Slice chicken thin, or dice, and layer it over bottom of greased 9X 13 baking dish. Then add cooked pasta, topped with spinach. Spreading everything in even layers.
      5. Finally top with shrimp, then pour cheese sauce over whole thing.
      6. Move stuff around a little to be sure sauce gets all the way to the bottom of the pan.
      7.  Sprinkle remaining Parmesan over top. Sprinkle with Paprika for nice color.
      8. Cook at 350 for about 15 minutes [ shrimp only take about 5 minutes to cook and everything else is already cooked. This step is to give cheese sauce time to set up.
      9.  Then turn on broiler for about 5 minutes-- just long enough for some of the cheeses on top to brown a little.
 Soo , sooo, GOOD!!
**Alternate sauce cooking directions:

melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a medium saucepan over medium/low heat. Add garlic and sweat it for about 5 minutes. Be sure the garlic doesn't brown. Add the wine and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients for the sauce and whisk well until smooth. Bring mixture to a simmer and keep it there for 10 minutes or until it's thick. Cover sauce and remove it from the heat. 
**now here's my issue here: anytime I have ever used fresh garlic when trying to make an Alfredo sauce, even using heavy cream and butter galore, something about the garlic juice/oil made my sauce curdle. Gross, I know. So, maybe that's just me. You try it how you feel comfortable and let me know how it works for you.

The highest reviewed Copycat recipes for Romano's Penne Rustica I've found also call for :

1/2 cup (about 2 ounces) thick-sliced smoked prosciutto, chopped
 and pimentos to be used as a garnish. 
I didn't miss either one. But add them if you think you might.

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