Sunday, February 8, 2009

Playing Mad Scientist in the Kitchen

This is a lovely one-dish meal, creamy and tangy and full of vegetables! It is also a “cook once, serve twice” recipe. I serve half of this sauce recipe over the pasta and freeze or refrigerate the other half to serve later, but for a larger group, just double the amount of pasta. It will thicken slightly after cooking. If you serve half of this over pasta, it serves 3-4 people.

As I said in the title, this is one of my “mad scientist” kitchen creations. It all started when my husband had a business lunch at an Italian restaurant, and he called to gloat about having Chicken Saltimbocca. He was talking about all the vegetables it contained and how nice and tangy the sauce was, and I remembered the new bottle of really strong red wine vinegar I had just bought. Later, I talked with my younger brother, and he mentioned one of his favorite Italian dishes. It’s a very old-school Italian-American dish called Chicken Francese, and he loves the bite of the lemony sauce, particularly when it includes briny capers.

That did it. I decided to make a pasta sauce with lots of veggies in a tangy tomato-cream sauce. I went to my pantry and my refrigerator to peruse the possibilities. Red wine vinegar was a must—and to me, the stronger it is, the better. I had some heavy cream and sour cream, as well as some capers and Italian-seasoned diced tomatoes. Three beautiful zucchini were in my crisper, and I had an onion, too. Of course, I had garlic. A whole chicken was in the fridge, so I put it on to boil with some veggies to flavor the broth. (I still prefer to boil my chicken ahead of time so I have homemade chicken broth for my sauce and pasta. I also add a few tablespoons of broth from the pasta into the sauce, since the starches released by the pasta help the sauce adhere to it.)

When my husband walked in the door from work, the smells hit him at the door and a smile spread across his face. After he finished his pasta, he turned up the bowl and drank the sauce! I have refined the recipe a bit since then, but the essence remains the same. It is pretty awesome, if I do say so myself! The only thing it is lacking is a name, so feel free to offer suggestions.

Okay, so let’s gather all the ingredients together. Here are the major players from the pantry and fridge:

Slice the zucchini and salt it. Set it aside for at least 30 minutes to allow the salt to “sweat”.

Pat the salt and moisture off, then dice the zucchini into bite-size pieces. (I love how bright green and summery it looks!)

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan on medium heat. Cook just until the onion begins to soften and become transparent. The zucchini should still be bright green and pretty firm.

Here’s a really fun part to me! Tilt the skillet, and pull the onion and zucchini to the top of the skillet away from the heat. When the oil runs to the lower end, and pour the Italian seasonings into the oil, with the minced garlic on top of them. The oil heats the spices and the fragrance is wonderful! When you smell them, they are done. Lay the pan flat again.

Add the tomatoes, juice and all! This quickly lowers the temp, so I add the dairy while it is cooler, as well as the capers and fresh-ground black pepper. (If you are like me and like this really tangy, you can add a bit of the brine from the capers.)

Reduce the heat and let it simmer, stirring occasionally.

Undercook the pasta, about 1-2 minutes less than the package says. This is especially true if you use Dreamfields pasta (as I do), since it almost falls apart if you overcook it at all. Just after adding the pasta to the water, add red wine vinegar, broth or wine, and cooked chicken (or other protein source) to the sauce. In a few minutes, you should smell the vinegar!

Drain the pasta, but do not rinse it! It will continue to cook after draining, but I still like it to stand up to the veggies and rich sauce, which is why I like to undercook the pasta. Take the sauce off of the heat and add your lemon or lime juice for just a bit more tartness and a fresh flavor. Serve the sauce over or combined with pasta. Garnish as desired with feta, goat cheese, fresh herbs, pine nuts, etc.

Reserve half of the sauce to serve at another time. Here are a few tips:
  • Instead of chicken, you can try Italian sausage, shrimp (add just before serving to avoid overcooking), eggplant, tofu, etc.
  • If you are watching your carbohydrate intake, I suggest Dreamfields pasta because it has very few net carbs per serving.  You can also serve this over cooked spaghetti squash.
  • If you want to lower the fat content, decrease the amount of fat-free half and half and increase the low-fat or fat-free sour cream to maintain a thicker consistency.

So here's the actual recipe:

My As-Yet-Unnamed "Mad Scientist" Pasta Sauce

1–2 small zucchini, diced
app. 1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 c. onion, diced
1 tsp. Italian seasonings (I use the McCormick Italian Seasoning Herb Grinder)
app. 1 Tbsp. minced garlic
2 cans Italian-seasoned diced tomatoes
1/2–1 Tbsp. capers (optional)
1/2 tsp. fresh-ground black pepper (or to taste)
3/4–1 c. heavy whipping cream or fat-free half and half
1/4–1/2 c. sour cream
app. 1/2–1 lb. cooked chicken
app. 1 c. chicken broth (can substitute vegetable broth or white wine)
12–16 oz. shaped pasta
app. 1/8–1/4 c. red wine vinegar
app. 1 Tbsp. lemon or lime juice

  • Slice zucchini in half lengthwise, then salt it liberally (preferably with kosher or sea salt). Set it aside for at least 30 minutes to allow the salt to draw out excess moisture. Pat the salt and moisture off; dice zucchini.
  • Put olive oil in a large sauté pan on medium heat. Add the zucchini and the diced onion to the hot oil. Cook until the onion begins to soften and become transparent.
  • Tilt the skillet slightly, and pull onion and zucchini to the top of the skillet; let the oil run to the lower end and pour the Italian seasonings and minced garlic into the oil. Allow the oil to heat the spices until they become fragrant, then place the skillet flat again.
  • Add tomatoes (including juice), capers, fresh-ground black pepper, heavy whipping cream and sour cream; stir.
  • Reduce heat to medium-low and let it simmer slowly, stirring occasionally.
  • Cook pasta very al dente, about 1-2 minutes less than indicated by the package directions.
  • Just after adding pasta to the boiling water, add red wine vinegar, broth, and cooked chicken to the sauce.
  • Drain pasta; remove sauce from heat and add lemon or lime juice; serve half of sauce over or combined with pasta.  Garnish as desired with fresh herbs, pine nuts, goat cheese, etc.
  • Reserve half of the sauce to serve at another time.