Sunday, August 19, 2007

Radagast and SO's creamy chicken pasta

My SO and I love making creamy pasta sauces (e.g., sun-dried tomato and sausage cream sauce pasta, garlic and clam cream sauce pasta, and fettucine alfredo), but a few weeks ago we were in the mood for a chicken-based cream sauce, which we didn't have a recipe for. Thus, we decided to experiment a bit, and came up with a sauce that was filled with garlic, sauteed chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, and creamy goodness. We made the sauce again today, adding some spinach and basil, and came up with this dish. While eating we realized that this reminds us of pasta dishes we've had at places like the Olive Garden or Macaroni Grill; the similarity is unintentional. Since we enjoyed this so much, it's this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

1/2 to 3/4 pounds chicken (we use boneless, skinless chicken thighs)
Salt and ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
8 garlic cloves, peeled and minced or pressed with a garlic press
8 sun-dried tomato halves, chopped (we use oil-packed tomatoes)
1/4-1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup white wine
4 cups loosely packed fresh spinach
2/3 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup loosely packed chopped fresh basil
1/3 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus extra for serving
1/2 pound dry pasta (we've used fettuccine and penne)

0a. Cook the pasta in salted water until it is al dente. When cooked, drain the pasta, but do not rinse with water. Work on the sauce (steps 1-9) while the pasta is cooking, though schedule your cooking so the pasta is done just a little before it needs to be added to the sauce (in step 10). We usually start the pasta cooking at around the same time we start sauteing the chicken.
0b. Have the garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, red pepper, chicken stock, wine, and spinach ready to add before you start sauteing the chicken, as they need to be added in quick succession once the chicken is finished. Chopping the basil wouldn't be a bad idea either.
1. Trim the excess fat from the chicken and slice it about 1/2"-thick. Sprinkle with a couple pinches of salt and ground black pepper.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high or high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the chicken. Flip the chicken pieces once the bottoms are well browned, and continue sauteing until they're well browned on their other side. Remove the chicken pieces, leaving the oil in the pan. See the notes section for more information on this step.
3. Immediately add the garlic to the pan and cook, stirring constantly, until the garlic starts to brown (usually about a minute or less).
4. Add the sun-dried tomatoes to the pan and stir for another 30 seconds (or until the garlic is starting to get well browned).
5. Add the crushed red pepper and cook, stirring, for a few seconds.
6. Add the chicken stock and wine, and bring the contents of the pan to a simmer. Reduce the heat, adjusting it during the following steps to maintain a simmer.
7. Add the spinach, stirring to mix. Once the spinach has wilted, add the reserved chicken and continue simmering, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is reduced in volume by approximately half (a few minutes).
8. Add the cream and basil, and simmer until the sauce is a good consistency to coat the pasta, stirring frequently; this usually takes 2-4 minutes.
9. Once the sauce is thickened, mix in the cheese.
10. Add the drained pasta, mix well, and serve with additional grated cheese (if desired).


Adding whole spinach leaves results in lots of long pieces of wilted spinach in the dish; we enjoy the texture this adds, but if you think you won't, feel free to chop the spinach before cooking it. You could probably substitute dried basil and frozen spinach for their fresh counterparts without issue (making sure to reduce the volumes added to compensate for their dried and/or frozen states). And, as I alluded to in the introduction, we've also made a version of this without spinach and basil; in that version we substituted 1/2 teaspoon ground sage for the basil (adding the sage along with the crushed red pepper), and left the spinach out entirely. We like the spinach and basil version better, but the sage version is good too.

If you have oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, and want even more sun-dried tomato flavor, try using 3 tablespoons of the oil from the sun-dried tomatoes in place of the olive oil.

Sauteing the chicken properly is key to adding a lot of browned chicken flavor to this dish. To do this, try to stir the chicken as little as possible once it's been added to the pan, and only flip the chicken once it's golden brown on the first side. Once the sauteing is complete there will probably be lots of little fried bits of chicken left in the pan; by using this pan and the oil still in it for the rest of the dish, you're adding all this flavorful goodness to the rest of the dish.

If, while cooking, you suspect that the pasta won't be ready in time, lower the heat during the simmering (steps 7 and 8) to slow the thickening of the sauce.

This recipe is based on the style of cream sauce in our sun-dried tomato and sausage cream sauce pasta and garlic and clam cream sauce pasta recipes, which we obtained from Weinstein and Scarbrough (2002).

Weinstein, B., and M. Scarbrough. 2002. "How to Make a Light Creamy Pasta Sauce." Fine Cooking 50: 45-49.

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