So we moved last weekend, and I've got myself a brand new (to me) kitchen! I think I have five times more counter space than I did in our previous apartment - it's glorious! The problem is, it's been nearly 100 degrees every day since we moved, so I've hardly been motivated to do much serious cooking. I finally couldn't stand it, though, and had to really put the new kitchen through its paces.
There's a little place in downtown Elmhurst, Illinois called Fresco's. It's a Mediterranean cafe owned by a very short, friendly Italian man and often staffed by his very tall, nerdy-looking son. They're quite a combination. My favorite dish there is called "Pasta Michele," and it's really to die for. Tender grilled chicken breast and big, succulent mushrooms over penne pasta in a sweet tomato cream sauce and lots of fresh mozzarella. This dish started as something of an attempt to recreate Pasta Michele, but has evolved into its own thing since.
This is a great dish to use if you need to impress company. It's a people-pleaser - who doesn't like pasta. On the other hand, it does take a good chunk of time and isn't the sort of thing most folks make at home on a regular basis. Best of all, you can do most of the prep before they arrive, and just let things simmer while you mingle.
Here's the cast of characters. My chicken has been marinating overnight in Balsamic at this point, but you can get away with just 30-60 minutes if you're pressed for time. Use Penne or Farfalle (bowtie) pasta - it's pretty. The sauce comprises the rest. A large can of tomato sauce and one of diced tomatos are a base. We'll make things interesting by adding mushrooms, sweet onion, red pepper, garlic, Herbes de Provence, and a touch of cream. Oh, and vodka. Plenty of vodka.
Marinate your chicken breast in Balsamic vinegar and plenty of minced garlic. Overnight is vastly preferable. Place chicken and marinade together in a baking dish, and throw into a 350 degree oven for 30-40 minutes, until chicken is just cooked.
That's the last you'll hear of the chicken 'til plating. It's that simple.
Start the sauce by finely dicing your onion and red pepper. More surface area means more flavor that can work its way into the sauce, not to mention finer pieces are easy to get into every bite.
Add just enough olive oil to cover the bottom to a large pot (or, better yet, a dutch oven) over medium heat. Cook the onion and red pepper for just a minute or two until they begin to soften. They'll cook the rest of the way in the sauce itself, which we'll build right on top of them.
Open up your diced tomatoes and tomato sauce and add them to the pot. Plain diced tomatoes are fine, but "Italian Style" ones with some spices couldn't hurt, right?
Don't forget the mushrooms, either! These may be my favorite part of the dish. They get so incredibly flavorful after cooking in the sauce for a nice long time.
At this point, if you're like me, you'll realize that the giant bottle of Vodka you've had since last summer doesn't actually have a full cup left in it. Oops. The good news is that you can substitute in some other delicious alcohol without loss. I ended up using about 3/4 cup Vodka to 1/4 cup Marsala wine.
Yup, that's already good enough to eat, though the veggies won't be quite cooked yet. Add plenty of minced garlic and a good handful of Herbes de Provence. If you don't keep Herbes de Provence on hand (how provincial), you can put them together out of marjoram, thyme, savory, basil, rosemary, sage, and fennel. Or just poo-poo the whole concept and add your favorite French/Italian seasonings. It'll probably be delicious.
Give it a taste at this point and add salt as needed.
Now cover your pot and simmer the sauce for about an hour over low heat.
I lied about this being the last you'll see of the chicken. The chicken is actually an excellent way to time when you ought to start the "finishing" process for the dish. When the chicken comes out of the oven, your sauce will probably be at least halfway through its hour of simmering. That means two things:
First, you'd better cook some pasta. Despite the fact that I would happily eat this sauce as a soup, it really is best over pasta.
It's also time to add the cream to the sauce itself. Start with just 4 ounces or so, and add more to taste.
That's that! When the sauce is done simmering, toss your al-dente pasta with it to finish the pasta while soaking up some flavors.
Then top with sliced chicken.
Top that with lots and lots of cheese. Because cheese is delicious. Parmesan is great, as is Asiago. Alternatively, you could forego the hard cheeses entirely and add some fresh mozzarella. Or be a rebel and do both.
That's it! Go, eat it! You'll have enough to feed 10 people or so, but may want to hide it away and keep all to yourself. Or be ready to make another batch soon, because the first one won't last long.
Recipe: Farfalle and Balsamic Chicken in Vodka Sauce
Prep Time: 10-20 minutes minutes | Cook Time: 60 minutes | Difficulty: Easy | Servings: 10-12
Marinate chicken in Balsamic and garlic overnight.
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake chicken in marinade at 350 for 30-40 minutes until just tender.
Dice onion and red pepper finely.
Add 1 tbsp olive oil to a large dutch oven over medium heat. Cook onion and red pepper 1-2 minutes until beginning to soften.
Add tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, mushrooms, vodka, garlic, and seasonings to dutch oven. Simmer over low heat for one hour.
Cook pasta to al-dente.
Add cream when sauce has 10-20 minutes left to simmer.
Toss pasta in sauce to finish cooking.
Slice chicken and serve immediately over pasta and sauce. Garnish with cheese to taste.