Thursday, June 13, 2013

Penne with Spring Asparagus and Chicken

Nothing says "end of winter" to me like asparagus.  After a snowy spring, all I want to do is bask in the warm weather and avoid turning on my oven to make dinner. Thus, we have this "light" dish of pasta and asparagus made on the stove top.

Even when I cook a relatively healthy meal like this one, I end up eating copious amounts of it. So I just ignore the health aspect altogether and add truffle butter.  Truffle butter makes everything better.

Piqued your interest, have I?

Before we get to the butter, though, let's talk about making pasta.  Pasta is one of those tricky things that seems ridiculously simple to make, and yet when you do it at home, it's never as good as when you get it at a restaurant. Box of pasta + boiling water = properly cooked pasta. Right? Wrong.  I've learned there are two tricks to making restaurant quality pasta at home.

The first thing is properly salting your water. You need to add LOTS of salt to your pasta water to flavor the pasta. You might be sitting there thinking, woah, Milo, I am not a crazy salt-fiend like you apparently are, I don't want my food to taste like a salt lick.  Well think of it this way: when you season your food, almost all of the salt sticks to the food, so you only add as much salt as you would want to eat. When you salt your pasta water, though, a lot of the salt stays behind in the water you eventually dump. So to get your pasta properly salty, you need to add mucho salt.

The second key to making really great pasta is finishing it in the pan with your sauce and other ingredients. If you are making a dish that doesn't have a sauce component, it's even more important you finish the pasta with the other ingredients to keep your dinner from coming out bland and unexciting.  Conveniently, this here recipe is an example of this technique at work.

Penne with Spring Asparagus and Chicken
1/2 lb penne pasta
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast
12 oz cremini mushrooms, sliced
1/2 lb asparagus, trimmed and cut
1/2 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

1 T truffle butter
white wine
grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of water to boil, and salt the water liberally. While the water is heating, put a large skillet on the stove with a good swirl of EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) on the bottom.  Prep your asparagus by breaking off the woody bottoms, and cut the stems into pieces approximately 1.5 inches long.  Add your diced onion, asparagus, and garlic to the pan over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper.

While the veggies start to soften, clean and slice your mushrooms, trimming or breaking the stems off.  Once the onions and asparagus have softened, transfer them to a bowl or plate, and add your mushrooms to the pan. While the mushrooms cook, slice your chicken into strips or cut it into cubes. Cook the mushrooms til they have browned and start to release their liquid, a few minutes.

Remove the mushrooms and set aside with your asparagus.  Add the chicken to the pan and cook until no longer pink in the center.  At the same time, add your pasta to the boiling water. When the chicken is cooked, deglaze the pan with a splash or two of white wine.  Get all the brown deliciousness off the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon or spatula, and then add back in the vegetables.  Season with salt and pepper, and let that all stew together while your pasta finishes. 

Check the doneness of your pasta about two minutes before the end of the recommended cooking time. For example, if the box says 9 minutes, check it after about 7.  Eat a piece-- you want it to be tender on the outside but still hard in the middle.  Ladle two spoonfuls of the cooking water into the skillet, and then drain the rest of the pasta and add it to the skillet as well.  Give everything a good toss, and then cover the pan and let it cook some more for about 2 minutes, or until the pasta is tender and has absorbed the rest of the cooking liquid from the pan.  Don't have a lid for your big pan? Just set a sheet tray or better yet a pizza pan on top of the skillet.

Once everything is cooked through and the water is absorbed, you are ready for your truuuuuuuuuuuuuuuffle buuuuuuuuuuuutter.  Scoop out a tablespoonful and let that puppy melt all over your pasta concoction.  (If you can't find truffle butter, that's okay, this meal will still be delicious.  But check before you assume you can't find it. I found mine in the butter section at Wegman's for $2.50. Wonders never cease.)

Scoop your dinner into a dish, grate some Parmesan cheese on top, and serve with that bottle of white wine you already opened.

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