Virginia Willis Blog

Weeknight Broccoli Recipes … with Side Dish of Honest Truth

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I adore broccoli. It’s one of my favorite vegetables, especially in the dreary winter months. High heat roasting creates crispy bits and coaxes mild sweetness from the slightly bitter brassica. Steamed broccoli is crisp, clean, and bright. Stir-fried broccoli seems to pull the best from both of the aforementioned cooking techniques.  It’s great finely chopped raw in salads. I also peel and thinly slice the stalks for nibbles. I pretty much like broccoli any which way except overcooked to dreary mush. It’s a handy vegetable to keep in the produce bin, even if it’s not the main star, to add a flash of green to rice, farro, quinoa, or pasta. Broccoli is a great team player for other dishes. You can pretty much throw a handful into anything but ice cream and it will work! 

LUY cover

In this week’s post, I am sharing two down-home, comfort-food, classic-weeknight broccoli recipes. The first, Makeover Broccoli Macaroni and Cheese, is featured on the cover of my cookbook which launches March 3rd, Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome. I am also offering a recipe for Chicken Broccoli and Rice Casserole that is a bit more indulgent, but lightened up nonetheless, and far more healthy and wholesome that the typical Chicken Broccoli and Rice Casserole. I’m certain you’re going to love both of them. I am also sharing a big heaping helping side dish of honest truth.

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I want to take a moment and try to explain a bit about my cookbook, Lighten Up, Y’all. It’s not a diet book. It’s not a book of makeover recipes, although there are a few, like the Broccoli Mac and Cheese. It’s not a book of fake “low-cal” food. I don’t lie to you and tell you that fat-free carob yogurt is going to quell your chocolate craving or that chewing gum will satisfy your sweet tooth.

I do tell you to drink more water. I do tell you to eat less and move more. I do tell you that food can be good and good for you. I do promise you that these recipes taste great. Because, here’s the deal: I am not a doctor, or a nutritionist, or a dietician. I am most certainly not a “skinny bitch!” I am not a professional actor with a staff of trainers and cooks to help me. I am a normal person, just like you. The real truth is that I actually don’t want to be skinny or thin; I want to be healthy and strong.

Y’all know that I am a storyteller. In my books and articles I talk about growing up in the South, traveling all over the world, working for celebrities like Martha, Bobby, Nathalie, and Anne. My recipes are filled with tales of being in the kitchen with Meme and Mama. This book has that, too, but I have to tell you that this is hands-down the most personal book I have ever, ever written. Honestly, I was reading the introduction the other night and had an enormous tsunami-sized wave of fear come over me, I thought, “Oh dear, what have I done?” It felt so raw.

This book pretty much bears my soul, my thoughts, and my shortcomings. I share with you my inner scared little girl who was a bookworm and subsequently picked last on the playground for kickball. I share the pre-teen that was teased about her broad shoulders. I share the teenager that was harassed in high school for never having kissed a boy. (Now, that part of the story is a whole lot more clear….) I share more of me  like I have in no other. And, the point of me telling you all this is that if I can overcome my inner demons, lose weight, and get healthy, then you can, too!

Most importantly, I want to share that I’ve gained a better acceptance of my body. Lighten Up, Y’all is my attempt at being healthy and strong rather than pursuing and obsessing over an idealized weight. Face it, I don’t care how much weight I lose, I’m not growing to super model height, and I’ll never look like Charlize Theron! Lighten Up, Y’all is the story of me focusing on my emotional, spiritual, and physical well being, and not only looking at the scales. It’s the story of me truly enjoying exercise. It’s also the story that I am continuing to learn every single day, that there is beauty in every body. The journey of writing this book changed my life. Is this a lifelong journey? Yes. Will I have to watch what I eat and continue to exercise? Yes. Here’s the difference: now I want to. It’s now my way of life.

mountain goat on

In the Kitchen with David on QVC!

I’ll be traveling all over the country in the next months teaching classes, speaking, and sharing more stories. Please check out my events page to see if I’ll be in your area. I love, love, love meeting new faces and am always so honored to be at your table when you cook from my blog and books. And, if you’d like me to visit your bookstore, book club, cooking school, Weight Watchers meeting, or gourmet store, please shoot a note to I’m booking deep into fall and I am always interested in seeing what we can do together!

BIG HUGE NEWS!! I’m so excited to announce that I will be on QVC with Lighten Up, Y’all on Sunday the 1st of March at Noon. I can’t wait to make David do his Happy Dance with my classic Southern recipes made healthy and wholesome!

Bon Appétit Y’all!
Virginia Willis

makeover broccoli mac and cheese on


Lighten Up, Y’all Makeover Broccoli Mac and Cheese
Serves 10

1 cup shredded 50 percent reduced-fat extra-sharp Cheddar cheese 
(4 ounces)
¾ cup shredded 75 percent reduced-fat extra-sharp Cheddar cheese (3 ounces)
2 tablespoons panko (Japanese) bread crumbs
½ teaspoon paprika
1¾ cups 2 percent milk
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup low-fat cottage cheese
½ teaspoon dry mustard
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces (2 cups) whole wheat elbow macaroni
12 ounces (4 cups) broccoli florets and stems

Preheat oven to 450°F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Coat an 8-inch-square (2-quart) baking dish with cooking spray. Combine the two cheeses. Mix ¼ cup of the cheese mixture, the bread crumbs, and paprika in a small bowl. Set aside.

To make the cheese sauce, heat 1½ cups of the milk in a large heavy saucepan over medium-high heat until simmering. Whisk remaining ¼ cup milk and the flour in a small bowl until smooth; add to the hot milk and cook, whisking constantly, until the sauce simmers and thickens, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining 1½ cups of the cheese mixture and the cottage cheese until melted. Stir in the dry mustard, and nutmeg, and add salt and pepper to taste.

Cook pasta according to package instructions. In the last 3 minutes of cooking, add the broccoli florets. Drain well and add to the cheese sauce; mix well. Spread the pasta-broccoli mixture in the prepared baking dish; sprinkle with the bread crumb mixture. Bake until bubbly and golden brown, about 20 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly. Serve warm.

Calories 182 Fat 4 g Protein 14 g Carbs 24 g Fiber 3 g

(All the recipes in Lighten Up, Y’all have the above nutritional information so that you can figure out your “points”….)

weeknight broccoli recipes on

Chicken Broccoli and Rice Casserole
Serves 8

Most often this indulgent casserole is made with a couple familiar red and white cans of cream of mushroom soup and frozen broccoli. This version is made with fresh, wholesome ingredients – and I’ve also lightened it up, y’all! It takes just a smidgen more time, but the results are absolutely extraordinary. If you don’t have casserole or skillet that will suitable go from stove-top to oven to your table, simply transfer the mixture to a your preferred casserole as soon as you add the rice.

1 cup shredded 50 percent reduced-fat extra-sharp Cheddar cheese 
(4 ounces)
¾ cup shredded 75 percent reduced-fat extra-sharp Cheddar cheese (3 ounces)
1 cup panko
2 cups homemade chicken stock or reduced fat low sodium chicken broth
2 cups 2% milk
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
1 thyme sprig
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, diced
8 ounces sliced white button mushrooms
2 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 cups long grain rice
1/2 cup reduced fat sour cream
pinch cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, halved (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1 crown broccoli, cored, and chopped into small florets
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Combine the cheeses then combine the panko and with half of the cheese. Set aside.

Heat the stock and milk in a medium saucepan with the bay leaf and sprig of thyme over medium low heat until steaming. Keep warm while you prepare the vegetables.

Heat the butter and oil in a large ovenproof casserole or skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and celery. Cook until the onion is soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and season with salt and pepper; cook until tender, stirring occasionally, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the flour and stir to combine. (The mixture will be dry.)

Remove the bay leaf and thyme from the stock mixture. Whisk the stock into the flour and vegetables. Add the reserved cup of cheese and stir until smooth. Add the rice and stir to combine. Add the sour cream, cayenne, and nutmeg; stir until smooth. Tuck the chicken breasts into the rice. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and transfer to the oven. Bake until the rice is tender, the liquid has absorbed, and the chicken is cooked through, about 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the broccoli in a microwave safe bowl with ¼ cup of water. Cover and cook on until just tender and bright green, about 2 minutes, depending on the strength of your microwave. Drain the broccoli and keep warm.

Once the rice is tender and the liquid has absorbed, remove from the oven and stir in the broccoli. (It’s easiest if you remove the chicken then return it once you’ve stirred in the broccoli.) Smooth the top and sprinkle with the reserved panko-cheese mixture. Return to the oven and bake until the topping is golden brown, an additional 15 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly before serving.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. All photos and content are copyright protected. Please do not use photos without prior written permission. If you wish to republish this recipe, please rewrite the recipe in your own words and link back to this recipe on Thanks so much.


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Lighten Up, Y’all is available for pre-order! Order yours today!

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Copyright © 2015 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

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11 Responses to “Weeknight Broccoli Recipes … with Side Dish of Honest Truth”

  1. Hi, I made you Broccoli Macaroni & Cheese… But mine is Broccoli Spaghetti Squash & Cheese… Thank You so much for the basic recipe for me experiment with…

  2. Can’t wait for Lighten Up, Ya’ll! Everything you make is delicious! Your recipes haven’t failed me once. And I truly could stand to lose some weight! Thank you!!

  3. Virginia, I have pre-ordered your book and can’t wait to get my hands on it. As someone who has struggled with weight for my entire life, I too, have had to come to terms with not having the perfect body. I love your words about how it is all about being healthy, active and moderate. Those of us who love to eat have had to learn that it’s about balance, not deprivation! Thanks for your voice, thanks for your (fabulous!) recipes and thanks for being an inspiration to so many of us.

    • virginiawillis

      Thanks so much for reading, Liz. I am honored to be considered an inspiration. Thank you for having me at your table! I really hope you love my book. Best VA

  4. Love your recipes, but in the chicken casserole recipe there is a typo, it says panic instead of panko. Funny!

  5. evan bernstein

    How about a similar post on green beans? 🙂 I need some recipes other than steaming or blanching them lol.

  6. Congratulations!!! I’m not one for making casseroles, maybe cause I wasn’t raised “American,” but I do love your ingredients. Good luck with everything!!!

    • virginiawillis

      Chef Mimi – You can call it a “gratin” 😉 Thanks so much for reading. Best VA


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