Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Oven-baked Chicken & Ricotta Sauce Pasta

My preferred method of cooking chicken thighs is to oven-bake them. It is one of those methods that is not time consuming and fairly easy to clean up. Typically my biggest challenge is to remember to remove the thighs from the freezer early enough for them to defrost.

Your primary ingredients for this dinner are boneless, chicken thighs (you can use thighs with bones but the cooking time will be longer); breadcrumbs; and grated parmesan cheese. I typically have a stash of unseasoned breadcrumbs because I make them from the scraps of bread I always seem to have lying around. Periodically I purchase breadcrumbs and prefer unseasoned because it allows you flexibility in your recipe.

Turn the oven up to 400 degrees and set up a cookie sheet (with a rim) with a bit of aluminum foil and spray it with olive oil spray. You could do without the aluminum foil but the clean up is more difficult and it ruins your cookie sheet faster. I rinse the thighs and set in a bowl with one or two eggs scrambled with water - enough to coat all the thighs in the bowl. In a pie plate, I put a bit more than a cup of breadcrumbs (for one package of thighs; approximately six pieces); 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese; and seasonings (typically salt, pepper and tarragon but it is really your choice. Oregano, thyme or even sage are all good options). I mix this well so that the thighs will be evenly coated with the breadcrumbs and seasonings.

One at a time, I remove the thighs from the egg mixture, let the liquid drain a bit from the meat, add to the breadcrumb mixture and gently coat each piece. Once the thigh is evenly coated, I arrange it on the prepared cookie sheet. It will take 20 to 30 minutes for the chicken to cook so I have time to figure out what I will make to go with the chicken. Sometimes I just use a package of macaroni and cheese, pesto pasta or oven-baked rice. I am in the mood for something different so I look at my ingredient options.

One of my favorite cookbooks is How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman (he has a blog on NY Times site I find this book essential for cooking when I have completely lost interest in my own standard meals. I have some ricotta cheese so I look in the index to see if there is a recipe that I can use that calls for this ingredient and will also go with the chicken thighs. Sure enough there is a pasta sauce recipe that calls for ricotta and peas (page 144 How to Cook Everything) - which I also have. The sauce requires a penne, ziti or rigatone paste (tube shape) and I happen to have half a pound of ziti. Since the sauce recipe calls for a pound of pasta, I will just cut it in half.

I start water boiling for the pasta, take a quick peek at the chicken thighs (they haven't even started warming up really) and start gathering my pasta sauce ingredients.

Set aside

  • 1/2 cup of frozen peas

In bowl large enough to add the pasta later, combine;

  • 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 tablespoon butter (optional but per the recipe it adds richness to the sauce)
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste
When the water starts boiling, I add the pasta and check on the chicken thighs. They have started sizzling a bit so I turn them over which means they are more than half-way done. The side originally laying on the tin foil should have gotten a bit brown and crispy. Pasta typically takes about 10 minutes to cook, especially one of these tube shapes. When it is about half done, I thrown in the peas with the pasta so that they can all cook together. (The recipe called to have the peas cooked in salted water. Since I am using frozen peas I would rather not use another pan and know that they will defrost while the pasta is finishing cooking.)

When it appears that the pasta is done (we prefer our pasta al dente so it is up to you), I turn off the heat and take a ladle of the pasta water and add it to the bowl with the ricotta cheese mixture. I whisk the ingredients for a few moments to get them nicely blended; it seems a bit thick so I add just a bit more pasta water (barely quarter of a ladle) and re-blend. When satisfied with the consistency, I drain the pasta and peas and add them to the bowl with the ricotta mixture and toss it all together.

My final touch to the plate is a quick, fresh tomato salad. I cut one medium tomato in chunks and toss with a bit of basil infused olive oil and balsamic vinegar and season with some salt and pepper. Voila! All together it took about an hour but well worth having dinner and leftovers for lunch.

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