Friday, April 18, 2014

Spaghetti with Chicken, Herbs and Cherry Tomatoes

Last Year's Post: Pasta Primavera
Two Years Ago:  Ravioli with Apples and Walnuts

Spaghetti doesn't always come to mind as a spring or summer food, mainly because we normally associate it with a heavy red sauce and meatballs.  This dish is quite different - vibrant with herbs, lemon and fresh cherry tomatoes, it's actually best served at room temperature rather than hot or cold like a pasta salad.  There's something very summery and refreshing about lemon, herbs and tomatoes, don't you think?

I found the original recipe online and was attracted to it because it's so pretty.  I made some significant changes along the way - decreasing some ingredients, increasing others, and serving it at room temperature - to make more to my preference.  Before I made it, I thought it was going to need an additional ingredient or two - preferably crunchy and/or green - because it seemed too simple.....pasta, herbs, chicken, tomatoes.  I was happy to find out it doesn't need anything else at all.  But because it's a relatively simple dish, the quality and proportions of the ingredients are important.  Use the freshest herbs and freshly-squeezed lemon juice, and seriously consider splurging on the more expensive Parmigiano-Reggiano (rather than regular parmesan) because it's a important component in the finished dish. If you use regular parmesan it'll still be good, just not as good.

A couple of other key points make a big difference as well.  First, note that the chicken is marinated  so plan ahead - overnight is preferable for the best flavor.  And when you cook the chicken, let it saute undisturbed for a couple of minutes to develop a nice brown color - browning helps deepen the flavor.  But don't worry about browning the second side - if you do, the chicken will probably get over-cooked and dry.  Just be sure the chicken is almost cooked through before removing it from the pan, and let carry-over cooking take care of the rest.

The next tip is to use lots of fresh herbs, and add some of them right before serving when everything is at room temperature so the herbs don't wilt and lose their bright taste.  Parsley is a key (and often over-looked) herb here.  And finally, be sure to serve with lemon wedges for squeezing over everything - that bright hit of lemon heightens all the other flavors and makes it even more summery.

printable recipe
Spaghetti with Chicken, Herbs and Cherry Tomatoes
Makes 4 servings

10-12 oz boneless skinless chicken breast (cut into bite-sized pieces)
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of ½ a lemon
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (plus more to moisten the pasta)
½ teaspoon coarse salt (not table salt)
½ teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
8 oz dry spaghetti
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (to sauté the marinated chicken)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 large clove garlic, finely minced
2 cups whole small cherry tomatoes plus more for garnish (Optional)
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup parsley, chopped, divided
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
1 lemon, quartered

Add the thyme and next six ingredients (through black pepper) to the chicken pieces in a large zip-top bag and marinate refrigerated for at least 30 minutes, up to overnight (much better).

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the spaghetti al dente according to package directions.  Drain well; drizzle with a little olive oil and toss to prevent sticking. Set aside to cool.

Drain the chicken pieces.  Preheat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium high heat and add the chicken pieces; spread out into one layer and allow to cook undisturbed for approximately 2 minutes until golden.  Flip the chicken pieces and turn the heat down to medium low; continue to cook for approximately 2 more minutes until almost cooked through (they will continue to cook somewhat as they cool). Remove from pan and set aside to cool.

In the same sauté pan, add butter and olive oil over medium-low heat until the butter melts.  Sauté garlic until fragrant and soft, about 1 minute.    Add cherry tomatoes and cook until softened and slightly collapsed, 3-4 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.

 Add the chicken pieces to the tomato mixture, then toss with the cooked spaghetti.  Add the basil, half of the parsley and half of the Parmigiano-Reggiano to the dish and let cool completely to room temperature. Moisten with a little additional olive oil if the pasta looks dry after cooling.  Before serving, taste and adjust seasonings, then finish the dish with the remaining chopped parsley and grated cheese (serve extra on the side if desired).  Garnish with a few extra cherry tomatoes on top, optional.  Serve with lemon quarters for squeezing on top.

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