Brian Malarkey and Sara Mair’s Chicken Rigatoni

with Bell Peppers, Kalamata Olives and Sun-Dried Tomatoes 


The cold weather continues, and the desire for good hearty comfort food continues as well.  For me, that usually means pasta, but pasta can mean so much more than just a box of spaghetti and a jar of sauce. There are actually many good pasta recipes in the Top Chef Cookbook. For this week, and “in honor” of our new President, I decided to find a pasta dish that could be viewed as a “patchwork pasta” — I chose Brian and Sara’s Chicken Rigatoni with Bell Peppers, Kalamata Olives and Sun-Dried Tomatoes. This ended up being a great dish, because a lot of the elements are cooked separately to maintain their separate flavors. Also, the sweet components of the peppers and sun-dried tomatoes, really complimented the savory aspect of the pancetta and the briny aspect of the kalamata olives.

This is a relatively quick dish because a lot of the items, although cooked separately, can be cooked at the same time. 

The Pasta:
First just put a pot of salted water to boil, and when boiling, add the rigatoni. Rigatoni is great choice of pasta for this dish because each pasta tube can easily fit on the prong of a fork, and the ridges and the wide hole in the middle can hold a lot of sauce. To get the rigatoni to al dente (which you want to do because you incorporate the pasta with the sauce later, so the pasta does continue to cook then just a little bit), takes about 13 minutes.

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The Pancetta:
As I’ve written in my blog before, Pancetta is merely Italian bacon.  It is seasoned slightly differently than American bacon, and one of the main differences is that it is not smoked.   Coarsely chop the pancetta.

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Then sauté it in a medium to large skillet until crisp. That takes 4 or 5 minutes. Transfer the pancetta onto paper towels to drain, but make sure to leave the rest of the bacon fat in the pan for the sauce.

The Sauce:

For the sauce, you need ½ of a medium yellow onion, thinly sliced into rings.

You also need a red or yellow pepper, cored, seeded and sliced into thin strips.  I chose a yellow pepper for its mild and not-too-sweet flavor.  In retrospect, I might have used ¼ of a yellow pepper and ¼ of a red pepper to add more color to this dish.

You also need to finely chop a shallot.

And you need to finely chop the 4 sun-dried tomatoes that have been packed in oil in a jar.  (Sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil are a lot more expensive than plain sun-dried tomatoes.  You can easily “re-hydrate” the plain sun-dried tomatoes by soaking them overnight in some olive oil.  Another option is to just use plain sun-dried tomatoes, and add a little extra olive oil to the recipe.)

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You add about two tablespoons of vegetable oil to the pan that has the bacon drippings in it, and once that gets medium hot, add your onion, pepper, shallot and sun-dried tomatoes until the onion and peppers soften, which should take 5 to 7 minutes.

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In the meantime, the pasta may be done.  Just drain it and set it aside with a little drizzle of olive oil to keep the pasta from sticking together.

Next, mince the garlic.

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Add the minced garlic to the pan, but make sure to not burn the garlic.  You only want to additionally sauté the mixture for a minute, or until the garlic has softened as well.

Next, you add your ¼ cup of white wine, raise the heat, and stir until the liquid is evaporated.

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This takes about 4 to 5 minutes.


The Chicken:
While the sauce is evaporating, you can work on your chicken.  The chicken should be cleaned boneless, skinless chicken breasts that are seasoned with salt and pepper on each side.

 

Cut the chicken into 1-inch strips.  Then heat a small skillet and add a tablespoon of butter.

Take your chicken strips and sauté them in the separate skillet.

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Make sure the chicken is nicely browned on both sides, but not over cooked.  This should take about 5 to 7 minutes.  Once the chicken is done, that can be set aside.


Combining Everything:
Now you are basically ready to combine everything.  First you must chop pitted kalamata olives.  I was thrilled when I found a jar of already pitted kalamata olives at the grocery store.  Once pitted, coarsely chopping them up was a breeze.

 

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Add the chicken, chopped kalamata olives and pancetta back to the onion-pepper mixture, and heat just enough to warm through.

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Then, you must also toast the pine nuts.  Toasting pine nuts is not hard, but takes monitoring.  Truth be told, my first batch of pine-nuts burnt when I made this recipe, so I threw them out and started over.  All you need to do is take the pine nuts and put them on aluminum foil in a pan and put under a broiler.  Check them every 30 seconds to a minute and shake the pan frequently to get them evenly browned.

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If you can multi-task, at this stage, you can also finely chop the fresh flat-leaf parsley and the fresh rosemary.

Once the pine nuts, parsley and rosemary are ready, you are really ready to combine everything together.

Just before serving, stir in the grated parmesan cheese, pine nuts, parsley and rosemary and get all the ingredients fully combined and coated.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  I found that the pancetta, parmesan and olives already add a decent amount of saltiness, but I personally really enjoyed adding a lot of fresh-ground pepper to the dish.

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Plating the Dish:
To plate the dish, all you had to do was spoon out even amounts of pasta, chicken and sauce in pasta bowls.  I also liked to put out extra parmesan cheese and a pepper mill out on the table in case anyone wanted more of either.

 

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My Suggestions To Make This Fabulous Dish Even Better:
Other than my suggestions above (such as using both yellow and red peppers and multi-tasking – and none of them were my any means mandatory), there are really no adjustments necessary to this recipe.

 

In light of this being a “patchwork pasta” — it also accommodates all kinds of diversity. The recipe could easily be converted to a vegetarian recipe by increasing the amount of sun-dried tomatoes, and leaving out the pancetta and chicken. (The chicken in this recipe seems to mostly be there just to add protein. Because it is cooked separately, it does not soak up a lot of the flavors of the sauce.) The sauce of just vegetables was hearty enough to stand up on its own.

In addition, it could easily be turned into a kosher dish by sautéing the chicken in a tablespoon of vegetable oil instead of butter, leaving out the parmesan cheese, and substituting a couple of tablespoons of non-dairy creamer and a little salt, by leaving out the pancetta and instead either using turkey bacon, or adding more sun-dried tomato. (I substitute sundried tomatoes for bacon all the time – the sun-dried tomatoes add a punch and saltiness that although is not the same as bacon, often accomplishes the same goal in a dish that bacon does.)

Final Word On this Dish:
This was a great and yummy dish. It did not take too long to make and was highly satisfying. L:ike I wrote above, the subtle contrast of the sweet and savory in this dish was terrific. And the light brininess of the olives added an additional element. Also, I love just about anything with toasted pine nuts in it! (Love them in salads.)  There was a lot (pleasantly) going on in your mouth with each bite.  I’ll also admit that I had a little left over, and it reheated really nicely in the microwave.

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