~ Spring Chicken w/Garlic-Butter Pasta & Asparagus ~
This winner of a weeknight chicken dinner is taken straight from pages of my working parents' playbook. Before heading out the door in the morning, my mom would put four chicken breasts, doused with store-bought Italian dressing, in a bowl, and, at the end of the work day, dad would dredge the breasts in bread crumbs and sauté them in a skillet, while mom cooked a box of kid-friendly pasta and readied some fresh green beans. It was simple and straightforward, nothing fancy, but, it was a dinner we all liked, right down to the vegetable. If we four could look back and critique our dinner menus, all of us would agree: we were not an easy family to feed.
A family that sits down to dinner together, stays together.
A quirky family? To say the least. Dad loved Italian dressing -- it was suitable for anything. My brother detested tomatoes and tomato sauces -- but loved ketchup. I disliked macaroni and cheese -- but loved pasta and all cheeses. Mom disliked heavily-breaded chicken, pork or veal cutlets -- but loved batter-dipped, deep-fried fish and seafood. We all liked green beans and peas (cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, potatoes and mushrooms too) -- we ate green beans and peas a lot. We all hated squash. That said, we ate well, rarely argued, and, mom and dad cooked dinner together every night. My job was to set the table. My little brother was in charge of harassment.
Fast forward to present day. Trying to get four people to agree on anything, let alone what to eat, how to eat it, when to eat it, and, who's going to cook it and/or clean up after it, is: rocket science. Throw in an occasional vegan or self-imposed gluten-free nut job, well, enough said. That said, if you're courageous enough to give it a try, you have a lot more options available to you now than my mom and dad did back in the 1950's and '60's. Fresh asparagus is a prime example.
Asparagus, which came to America in the 1850's, wasn't available outside of its immediate growing areas until refrigerated trucks started rolling across our highways, and, even then, it was sold mostly to restaurant chefs because home cooks had no idea what to do with it. Click here to watch Julia Child, in a 1966 episode of the French Chef, Asparagus From Tip to Butt, show us how to properly prepare it.
Spring forward: Eat more fresh asparagus.
Interestingly, I enjoyed this family meal so much when I was growing up, forty-five cooking years later, I've not changed it in any way, except for the green vegetable -- asparagus, broccoli, green beans or peas, depending on what's in season. I kept my dad's favorite skip-the-eggs no-need-to-make-a-heavy-breading method for the chicken cutlets the same (for the traditional Italian-style method and recipe, check out ~ A Flash-in-the-Pan Dinner: Chicken alla Milanese~), and, I make it in my electric skillet like he did too -- dad sautéed the chicken in the skillet on the countertop while mom simmered the pasta at the stovetop and the two components cooked in about the same amount of time. Quirky? Yes. Yummy? Yes. The Italian dressing (along with its herbs and spices), is a great substitute for lemon juice -- a common pairing with asparagus.
3/4 cup Wish-Bone light Italian dressing, for marinating chicken
1 pound trimmed asparagus, from 2 pounds medium-thickness asparagus, trimmed as directed below, to yield 1 pound trimmed asparagus
1 pound fork-friendly, non-tubular pasta like rotini or bow ties
1 tablespoon sea salt, for seasoning water to cook pasta
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1/4 cup additional Wish-Bone light Italian dressing
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
~Step 1. Arrange the chicken tenders inside a 2-gallon food storage bag. Using a flat-sided meat mallet, lightly-pound the chicken tenders to flatten them out a bit. Do not smash them to smithereens. Add the Italian dressing to bag and seal to close. Using your fingertips, gently squish the chicken around in the bag to thoroughly coat the tenderloins in dressing. Place in the refrigerator to marinate 1-2+ hours or overnight. If you've got the time, overnight is best.
~ Step 2. Trim the tip ends of the asparagus to a length of 2-2 1/2 inches, then trim the stalk ends into 1" lengths, stopping when the sweet, tender part of the stalks meets the bitter, woody end stalks. There will be 1-pound trimmed asparagus.
~Step 3. In a 16" electric skillet, heat a little less than 1/4" of oil, about 1/2 cup. Remove the chicken tenderloins from the marinade, allowing excess marinade to drain back into the bag, transferring the tenders to a 13" x 9" casserole as you work, arranging them in a single layer in the bottom. Sprinkle a generous amount of breadcrumbs over their tops, patting the crumbs in with fingertips and let rest about 2 minutes. Using a fork, flip the tenders over and do the same on their second sides.
~Step 4. Add the bread-crumb-coated chicken tenders to the skillet, all ten will fit, just look at the photo. Give them a light sprinkling of freshly-ground sea salt. Adjust heat to sauté, 240°-250°, until nicely-browned and cooked through, turning once and salting the second sides too, about 6 minutes per side. Using a fork &/or a spatula (not tongs), gently transfer tenders, so as not to disturb the delicate crumb coating, to a wire rack that's been placed atop a layer of paper towels.
~Step 5. Add the asparagus to the perfectly-seasoned drippings in skillet. Sauté, using a spatula to keep them moving around constantly, until just cooked through and crunch-tender, about 3-4 minutes. Do not overcook the asparagus.
~Step 6. Meanwhile, back at the stovetop, bring 5 quarts of water to a boil over high heat and add 1 tablespoon sea salt. Add the pasta, give the water a stir, and cook pasta as package directs, until al dente, 10-11 minutes. Drain pasta into a colander and immediately return it to the hot stockpot on the still warm stovetop. Add the butter, Italian dressing, garlic powder and red pepper flakes. Stir until butter melts and spices are incorporated throughout this tangy make-shift garlicy-butter-sauce.
~ Step 7. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the freshly-sautéd asparagus to the pasta, then give the mixture a gentle stir. Portion into 4-6 pasta bowls and serve with 1 or 2 sliced chicken tenderloins atop each portion.
Portion 1-2 sliced chicken tenderloins atop pasta & eat ASAP:
Special Equipment List: 2-gallon food storage bag; flat-sided meat mallet; 1-cup measuring container; cutting board; chef's knife; 16" electric skillet; 13" x 9" x 2" casserole; fork; slotted spatula; wire cooling rack; paper towels; 8-quart stockpot; colander
Cook's Note: The first time I ate classic Oscar was in 1983 in The Big Easy. We were sitting in a fancy New Orleans French-Quarter restaurant, Arnoud's, listening to a jazz band. My meal arrived and it was wonderful: a lightly-pounded, gently-sauteed, fork-tender veal paillard, heaped with Louisiana crayfish, drizzled with buttery bearnaise and garnished with asparagus tips. Click here to get my recipe for ~ All that Jazz Chicken Oscar w/Blender Bernaise ~.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2018)