Penne with Chicken, Asparagus and Sun Dried Tomatoes

Great dishes always make your food taste better

This is my family’s favorite pasta.  We discovered it many years ago at a restaurant that is now long gone.  We don’t miss the restaurant much since this was the only thing we really liked there.  You can make it with or without the cream.  We like it with.  The fennel seeds add a surprising licorice flavor with a lot of depth.

This pasta recipe works well and can actually be used without the sauce (just with some parmesan cheese) as a side dish.  My sons like it this way and with the sauce.

Ingredients

  • Three skinless, boneless chicken breasts, sliced small pieces.  (How small is up to you.  How small do you like the chicken in your pasta?)
  • One grocery store bundle asparagus cut into 1/2 inch sections, leaving florets whole.  (These are usually about a pound)
  • One small jar sun dried tomatoes in olive oil (tomatoes removed from jar and diced small, oil reserved).
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic (or four cloves if you love chopping stuff)
  • One small brown onion, diced
  • One rounded teaspoon or very healthy pinch your favorite Italian Herb mix.  (my favorite is Spice Islands)
  • One tablespoon fennel seeds or toasted fennel seeds
  • 3/4 cup very good chicken stock
  • One can diced tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup marsala or madeira
  • 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
  • One package mini penne or penne (or rigatoni or garganelli or whatever tube shaped pasta you like)
  • Olive Oil (EV is fine for one stage and preferable to the other)
  • Parmesan Cheese (for Garnish).  Uhm … Taste the parmesan you’re using and make sure you like it.  There are a lot of cheeses sold as Parmesan or Parmesano Reggiano that suck.  You don’t want to make a great pasta and then garnish it with cheese that sucks.

A tablespoon - my way. Forget the little measuring spoons.

This is a favorite ingredient. All herbs, no salt.

Penzey's is a great source for herbs and spices.

Recipe

Heat a large saute pan or skillet over medium heat until hot.  Add three tablespoons (about a 2 second pour) of olive oil to the skillet.  Immediately add the chicken pieces. Once the chicken starts to cook add salt and pepper to taste.  (You can also add your favorite chicken seasoning if you like).  Stirring periodically, saute until browned and cooked.  Pour the chicken out of the pan onto a plate to reserve.

The only trick with this chicken is keeping people from eating it before it's time.

Add more alive oil to the pan and add the onions, stirring periodically over medium heat until translucent, about five minutes.  Add garlic and stir until fragrant, about one minute, and then add fennel seeds and stir until you begin to smell a faint licorice smell.  Immediately add Marsala or Madeira (your choice).  By the way – this recipe works just as well without this ingredient so if for any reason you don’t want to cook with wines simply omit this step.  Stir until the liquid is almost evaporated, about 3 minutes.

Leave the rubber bands on the asparagus to make cutting them up easier. Also, always cook the florets for less time than the stalk.

Add diced tomatoes to the pan and stir to reduce liquids (about a minute) but leaving some of this liquid in the pan.  Add the herb mix (dried) and the add the chicken stock.  Reduce heat to a simmer (very low heat) and add the sun dried tomatoes.  Taste the sauce at this point (carefully to avoid burning yourself).  It will need a little seasoning – salt and pepper.  Go ahead and add that now, to taste.  (which means you add a little, taste, add a little, taste and when you like it stop).  Cover and let this cook while you prepare the pasta. (I didn’t forget about the Asparagus and the sun dried tomato oil.  It’s not time to add them yet.)

Note that there is no mess. You are not a chick magnet if you are a messy cook.

Pasta

Put a large stock pot or pasta pot on the stove filled to 3/4 full with water.  Once the water is boiling add about a tablespoon of salt and a very short pour of olive oil (really just a few teaspoons).  Let the water return to a boil and add the pasta.  (you want the pasta to go into the water through the olive oil which will collect at the top).  Immediately stir the pasta and continue stirring for at least 20 seconds.  This will separate the pasta pieces so they don’t cook together.  For time, check the instructions on the box, but test about a minute before the box says the pasta will be ready.  Stir periodically during the cooking process.  Do not recover the pot or it will boil over and make a mess of your stove.

The starchy water from the cooked pasta is a great ingredient too often discarded.

When the pasta is almost ready (not too soft) use a measuring cup to take one cup of the pasta water out of the pot and then strain the pasta from the water, pouring the pasta back into the pot.  Don’t worry too much about getting all of the water out of the pasta.  Leaving a little in is good.  Put the pot on the burner you were using (it will still be hot) but make sure the burner is off.  Pour in a tablespoon or two of olive oil and add two tablespoons of butter.  Stir until the olive oil is combined and the butter is melted.  Add a healthy pinch of sea salt, several turns of fresh ground pepper and 1/2 tsp of dried italian herb mix.  Stir to combine, cover and set aside.

Finishing to serve…

Going back to the sauce, remove the lid (and try not to fall over from the wonderful scent), and stir in the asparagus and about half of the reserved sun dried tomato oil.  Stir to combine thoroughly.  Replace the lid and let this incorporate for about two minutes.  Remove the lid and add 1/2 to 3/4 of the cook pasta, stirring to combine.  Replace the lid and let this cook for about two minutes.  Remove lid and add reserved pasta water stirring to combine and then the cream, stirring to combine.  Replace lid and let the pasta simmer (over very low heat) for about five minutes.

Stir once more before serving.  Garnish with Parmesan cheese before serving.  Try not to gorge yourself.

Letting the pasta come together for a few minutes will make a HUGE difference in the flavor.

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