What’s for dinner? Sometimes you just don’t have time to plan or shop and when asked that question, you are suddenly struck mute and your brain draws a blank. When this happens to me, I improvise. I first go to the refrigerator to see what there is to build on. After making that assessment I go to the pantry to see what is on the shelves. Choose a base like rice, pasta, egg or polenta and you have a meal. I have been told that these last-minute creations are often the best meals ever. My husband, who is a musician, calls these creations, culinary jazz. No written composition just variations on a theme. It is the art of taking basic elements and improvising to come up with a totally original creation.
This is how it went down last night. I returned home after a day of crazy running around and I was starved. I hadn’t planned for dinner so I began the creative process. First the fridge. Aha! I hit pay dirt finding the remains of a rotisserie chicken I had made the night before. So with chicken breasts in hand I ventured into the pantry. OK, there was a jar of sun-dried tomatoes, shallot, garlic and spaghetti. Back to fridge I found some spinach, an opened jar of pickled cherry peppers and some fresh tarragon I used to season yesterday’s chicken. With a bit a parmesan to add another layer of flavor, I was on my way. Protein, starch and vegetables make for a tasty one pot meal. This dish was easy prep, quick cooking, delicious and satisfying to eat with limited clean up. The perfect combination for a tired, hungry girl.
I call my creation, “Pantry Pasta.” I have made it many times but because the outcome is dictated by what is available and not a script, it is different every time. Last nights recipe went like this.
Chicken breast, cooked and shredded (leftover from an earlier meal)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Drizzle of chili oil
1 shallot, sliced
1/3 c sun-dried tomatoes, sliced (these were jarred in oil)
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 pickled cherry peppers, chopped
1 1/2 c fresh baby spinach
2T fresh tarragon, chopped (or any herbs you might have)
1 lb. spaghetti
Grated Parmesan cheese
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- In a large sauté pan, heat enough extra virgin olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Add a drizzle of hot chili oil or crushed red pepper flakes.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt generously. Cook pasta about a minute less than package directions or until al dente.
- Add the shallot, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and cook at medium heat until the vegetables are soft.
- Incorporate the peppers and chicken and cook until heated through.
- Right before the pasta is ready, add the spinach and 1/2 of the tarragon or fresh herbs.
- Drain the pasta reserving 1c of the pasta water.
- Add pasta to the vegetables and toss to blend well adding additional olive oil if necessary. Add a splash of the pasta water and a generous grating of Parmesan. Stir well, add more pasta water if it seems too dry. Taste and adjust salt and pepper to suit yourself.
- When all ingredients are fully incorporated, top with additional cheese and remaining tarragon.
Since it was a very busy week, this made dinner for two nights (for two) and lunch for one another day. This is a great way to use leftovers or bits and pieces of produce or other products you may be storing in your fridge or pantry. I will confess, I am obsessed with keeping a well stocked pantry. I may even be a bit of a food hoarder but it has saved my butt many times and it allows me to create delicious dishes at the last-minute with minimal effort. I highly recommend you take inventory of your stores and reinforce them with the idea of making something with nothing. Things I always have on hand are artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, tuna, canned beans, dried pastas, rice, polenta, dried and jarred peppers, dried mushrooms, eggs and canned tomatoes. You will be amazed at the meals you will create with just a few staples. You too can be a jazz artist. Just improvise.
I would love to hear about your culinary jazz creations.