Cajun Chicken Pasta

While I read The Pioneer Woman’s blog regularly, and truly enjoy her writing and photography, I think this is the first time I have attempted one of her recipes.  Well, let’s face it: she lives on a cattle ranch – I don’t eat beef.  She cooks for Marlboro Man, her 4 kids, and various and sundry cowpokes, relatives, Ranch visitors, etc. – I cook for me and Tai.  Last, but hardly least, there is nothing particularly seasonal about her cooking, other than the standard pot-roast-in-winter and green-salad-in-summer type of seasonality.  That’s not to knock it; many of her recipes look fabulous, it’s just that as a local eater, it can be difficult to adapt a more conventional type of recipe to the produce that is available to me in a snowy New York February. 

Such was the case with this recipe.  Ree’s original recipe called for fresh red and green bell pepper and fresh Roma tomatoes, things that just aren’t possible in my February local foodshed.  I decided to give it a whirl with canned tomatoes and frozen bell peppers, and of course, changed a bunch of other things too; added roasted corn (because it was there), used whole milk instead of cream (because I was out of cream), switched 1 lb of linguine to 1/2 lb of whole wheat penne, and amped up the spice factor with added cayenne and jalapeno peppers (because that’s how I roll). So, in all honesty, I can’t rate her recipe; I didn’t come close to making it (one thing I will say is that she’s smoking crack with 10 minutes of prep time and 15 minutes of cooking time. It took me 15 minutes just to reduce the sauce, and more than 10 minutes of prep even with already-sliced peppers and tomatoes). 

But my recipe?  Hmmm, not so much.  The flavor was good, the spice was lovely, but… it needed more vegetables, fewer pieces of chicken with more blackened flavor, more crispness, less creaminess, more color contrast; a lot of help, in other words.  I can see where the fresh peppers and tomatoes would make a big difference but – I don’t see myself making this in summer, when those things are in season.  At that point I don’t want a creamy, spicy, rich pasta dish – I want to be able to taste the fabulousness of fresh summer tomatoes and peppers.  Maybe this is just one of those recipes that doesn’t translate well to a locavore diet.  I think it is worth tweaking a bit more (see some of my ideas in the Options section) so I will probably try it again.  In the meantime, if you are not a locavore, try out Ree’s recipe.  If you are – give this one a miss, or experiment with your own local tweaks (and let me know how yours turns out!).

Adapted from Cajun Chicken Pasta by Ree at The Pioneer Woman Cooks

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Cajun Chicken Pasta

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/2 lb pasta (I used whole wheat penne, but I think noodles would have worked better)
  • about 1 lb (2 breasts) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cubed to 3/4-inch
  • 1 tbsp Cajun spice mix
  • 1 tsp ground cayenne pepper
  • salt (if not included in the cajun spice mix)
  • 2 tbsp olive or grapeseed oil
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 cups diced green bell pepper (frozen)
  • 1 cup canned chopped tomatoes, drained (reserve juice)
  • 1 medium red onion, sliced
  • 1/2 cup roasted corn kernels (frozen)
  • 2 medium red jalapeno peppers, sliced with seeds (frozen)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 cup whole milk or cream
  • 1/2 tbsp cornstarch (optional)
  • freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • salt, to taste
  • fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish

METHODS

  1. Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water until al dente.  Drain well and return to cooking pot.  Cover and set aside.
  2. In a small bowl, combine Cajun spice mix, cayenne pepper and about 1/2 tsp of salt (if not included in Cajun spice mix).  Whisk to combine.  Spread chicken pieces out on a plate; sprinkle liberally, on both sides, with about 2 tsp of the spice mixture.
  3. Heat 1 tbsp each of oil and butter in a large skillet, preferably cast iron or stainless steel (not non-stick) over high heat until very hot.  Add the chicken pieces being careful not to crowd the pan (you may need to do this in two batches); do not stir. You want to blacken the outside of the chicken as quickly as possible (hence the small pieces so the chicken will cook quickly).  Sear for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the top-side of the chicken pieces just starts to turn white and it looks like the chicken is about three-quarters cooked through; then stir the chicken to blacken the other side.  Cook for another minute or two, then remove chicken, using a slotted spoon, to a clean plate.  Repeat, if necessary, with remaining chicken.
  4. Add remaining oil and butter to the pan, and return to high heat.  Once pan/oil is very hot, add the onions, peppers, garlic and corn; do not stir. Sprinkle about 1 tsp of the spice mixture over the vegetables.  Again, try to blacken the outside of the veggies without cooking them too much; cook over high heat for about 1 minute. Stir, then add tomatoes (without juice) and cook another minute.  Transfer vegetables to the chicken plate.
  5. Return the pan to high heat.  Deglaze with wine, reserved tomato juice and chicken broth.  Scrape up the blackened bits from the bottom of the pan, and stirring, bring broth to a boil.  Reduce sauce about halfway, until the color is a deep, rich brown.  Reduce heat to medium and, whisking constantly, add milk or cream.  Drain any excess juices from the chicken/veggie plate into the sauce.  Bring to a simmer and cook until the sauce is thickened, about 10 – 15 minutes (add optional cornstarch if the sauce is not thickening to your liking).  Taste sauce and adjust seasonings (I added the remaining 1 tsp of spice mix at this point). Add the chicken and vegetables to the sauce, toss to mix, and bring the mixture to a bubble.  Transfer pasta to a large bowl, add chicken and vegetables, and toss.  Serve hot, garnished with fresh parsley.

OPTIONS

  1. Increase the amount of vegetables; blacken the veggies in batches so they stay more crisp.  Consider julienned carrots, parsnip, sliced scallions. Perhaps omit the tomatoes and/or corn.
  2. Slice the chicken into small tenders, 3 to 4 inches long, and blacken for longer.
  3. Linguine or other noodles instead of penne.
  4. Reduce the amount of milk/cream, or omit entirely and try with a simple pan glaze.

STORE

For best results, store extra chicken and vegetables, separate from pasta, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

SEASON

Winter, or year round.

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