Over the years, I’ve taught a number of Italian cooking classes, one more enjoyable than the last and no doubt I’ve learned as much as anyone in the groups. A few minutes are always spent discussing the basic courses of an Italian meal while listening to a stellar Italian opera aria or two, though we rarely have time to make them all, more’s the pity. Having traveled to Italy a number of times, I learned it was no secret Italians themselves only have time for such luxurious repasts during special family get-togethers, Sundays, or holidays — much like Americans. In Naples, a tour guide confided to me, “We love just pasta for lunch; it’s a favorite. Or pizza!” It was cool hearing that.
Here in the states, pasta is rarely a first course (“primi”), which it is for that special Italian meal:
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Primo / Primi or primo piatto / primi piatti – first plate/s, usually pasta or risotto; you could also have a “bis di primi” or “tris di primi”, where they give you a small portion of two or three different types of pasta so you can sample.ITALY Magazine
Many Americans tend to cook up large pots of sauce on the weekend, (often known as “Sunday Sauce”) divvying it up into containers in the freezer for quick weeknight meals or sometimes layering a tray of lasagna for weekend guests or to take to the potluck. In recent years, quick vegetarian or meat pastas have become über popular with working families looking for something inexpensive everyone will eat. I’ll admit, nothing prepared me for the more recent and ongoing onslaught of varied macaroni and cheese offerings both in restaurants and in recipes online. How did that ever happen? One word: kids.
Often cooking for only two these Covid days, pasta at our house has become an occasional go-to treat for using up or stretching leftovers for Saturday supper. A few vegetables, a little cheese, whatever shape pasta’s in the cupboard, meat if I have it…and dinner is soon on the table. (I’m partial to Whole Foods 365 whole wheat pastas, inexpensive and tasty.) For years, though, I’ve made a soooo fast, kinda spicy, heavy-on-the-veg red sauce with chicken. We’ve come to love this dinner and depend upon it for a filling entrée when we are both hungry, don’t feel like much cooking, the last piece of a roasted chicken can’t feed us both, and a long movie is calling us to the basement. Having just enjoyed this meal last night, I thought I’d share it with you. There’s a caveat. Pasta with chicken, however, if you suss out the recipes in Italian cookbooks or look for it on menus in Italy, is not a thing. I mean, it’s just not done. Well, not in Italy, anyway. Sicily? I guess it may actually happen!
“Why Can’t You Eat Chicken with Pasta?”/LUCASITALY
There are pages of Chicken Cacciatore, which may include pasta — but only in American recipes. (Chicken Parmesan? Nope; that’s an American invention.) Pasta with Chicken Livers–yes. That’s a common thing in Italy. Chicken itself seems to be typically more of a main dish (Secondo) or a soup ingredient. Because I can, I dragged down 10 Italian cookbooks from my shelves just to check on the chicken and pasta thing. The only recipe that appeared was, “Chicken with Pasta and Potatoes,” from Susan Herrmann Loomis’ ITALIAN FARMHOUSE COOKBOOK and she prefaces it with, “…which does the very un-Italian thing of mixing chicken and pasta together in a single dish.” (How about pasta with potatoes? You do that at home? See just below.) I’ll admit I’m lacking in Sicilian cookbooks; I’ll have to remedy that.
An older, but favorite Lidia Bastianich book, LIDIA’S FAMILY TABLE, contained a meal with similar flavors to my kitchen-sink dish, but alas, not a strand of spaghetti in sight:
A close read of the index for Marcella Hazan’s books produced zip, nada, nothing, though I naturally got all caught up in reading her index — an ex-librarian favorite pastime. The famous Silver Spoon Pasta book, same drill. I even reached back into Elizabeth David and up into a bit more timely favorites, Patricia Well’s Trattoria and Stanley Tucci’s, The Stanley Tucci Cookbook from 2012. I couldn’t give away a dish of chicken and pasta to these people.
But if they showed up at the last minute last night, chicken and pasta would have been on the menu. (Even if they were Italians.) And not much else except garlic bread. A glass of whatever red was left from Friday night maybe. They’d have had to grin and bear it happily during the movie. As might you if you try this:
Clean Out the Fridge Chicken Pasta
- ¾ pound whole wheat spaghetti or linguine
- Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil or 1 tablespoon olive oil and two pieces of diced bacon
- 1 EACH, chopped: medium onion, medium carrot, and stalk celery
- 2 plump and large cloves of garlic. minced
- 1 medium zucchini, cut into medium dice
- Small handful fresh parsley, chopped finely
- 1 tablespoon Herbes de Provence—can sub a mixture of dried oregano and basil
- 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper-or to taste
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 15- ounce can chopped or puréed tomatoes–can sub 3-4 chopped fresh tomatoes
- ½ cup water
- 1 cup shredded cooked chicken
- Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, for garnish
- COOK PASTA: Bring 6 quarts of well-salted and peppered water to boil in an 8 – 10-quart pot. Cook pasta until al dente, according to package directions. Drain and cover loosely to keep warm if sauce isn’t yet done.
- MEANWHILE, MAKE SAUCE: Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a deep skillet or 6-quart pot over medium flame and cook bacon until just cooked through, if using, or heat 2 tablespoons oil if not using the bacon. Add onion, carrot, celery, and garlic seasoned with ½ teaspoon each salt, pepper, the 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper, and 1 tablespoon Herbes de Provence; cook for 5 minutes or until softened. Add zucchini along with the parsley and cook another minute or two.
- POUR IN WINE: and let cook, stirring, for a few minutes or until reduced by half.
- ADD TOMATOES AND WATER (then stir in chicken): and reduce heat to simmer. Cook for 10 – 15 minutes or until slightly reduced. Stir in cooked chicken and heat through.
- SERVE OVER HOT PASTA: Taste sauce and adjust seasonings. Serve over hot pasta garnished with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Hint: Flavor up rather than down the spices and heat in your sauce as it’s being served over blander pasta.
CHANGE IT UP:
- Use: any pasta you have on hand or ladle over grilled garlic bread or rice or polenta.
- Add: fresh basil for garnish; fresh mozzarella or a handful of fresh spinach right before serving; extra crushed red pepper or garlic; mushrooms; diced sweet peppers; or other leftover cooked vegetables–even diced potatoes. Try a generous splash of cream along with the chicken for an alternative ending.
- Swap in: diced ham or sliced cooked sausage or diced cooked pork for the chicken; chopped eggplant/green beans or asparagus, for the zucchini; 3-4 fresh diced tomatoes for the canned tomatoes.
- Skip: the chicken and add more vegetables. Skip the parsley and add a little more Herbes de Provence or basil/oregano. Skip the Parmigiano-Reggiano and use toasted breadcrumbs or sliced kalamata olives.
- Go Southwestern: Add 1/2 jalapeño, minced/seeded/deveined, along with the onion, etc. Change spices from Herbes de Provence to a tablespoon chili powder plus 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin. Use half of the tomatoes and salsa for the other half. Garnish with fresh cilantro and Queso fresco or Cojita cheese or grated sharp Cheddar.
If you liked this, you might also like my Easy Chicken-Black Bean Soup, which also uses up just a little leftover cooked chicken.
MORE INFO THAN YOU WANTED:
DORIE GREENSPAN: A Cake You Can Take Anywhere (my photo below)
LIFE GOES ON:
We are opening up in Colorado. I can’t figure out how to feel. Our numbers say 9 days of declining infections in the state. When we listen to the local or international news, we’re knocked back and wondering how our state is opening. On the other hand, many of us are fully vaccinated and more by now. What’re you thinking?
Time for pasta. Cook on, my friends. Keep yourselves healthy and happy. Thanks for reading the blog.
As always, stay warm, Colorado peeps,
Here’s Monday around our neck of the woods: