Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Weeknights Around the Table

First Stop, Italy!

As much as I hate to see it go, the freedom of summer is nearly gone. Even though I aged out of the 'back to school' blahs quite awhile ago, my subconscious still remembers. We went from sleeping in, not worrying about clean clothes, staying up late and eating lots of casually grilled meals, to the regimented routine of fall: school, sports practice, music lessons, homework, baths every night, clean clothes every morning—and dinner. No more dawdling. A 'meat and two' on the table every night. How many ways can you really serve chicken?

Well, let me tell you: Hundreds!

My favorite is and always will be old fashioned fried chicken. Not your 'oven fried' or Kentucky Fried (even though their extra crispy isn't bad!). No, I'm talking about iron skillet, crisco, buttermilk, double dipped in seasoned flour fried. But that's a Saturday or Sunday labor of love.

And my second favorite is Chicken with Slick Dumplings, again a time consumer. When I make Chicken and Dumplings, I always make a big pot, so the leftovers morph into a wonderful week night meal.

The 'meat and two' chicken kind of meals I'm talking about usually involve skinned, deboned chicken breasts or thighs. They can be split open and pounded into thinner versions that cook quickly. You can take a spin around the culinary world with a change of sauce and seasonings. When paired with the appropriate starch and vegetable you can turn week night meals into geography lessons with a culinary twist!

My first suggestion is of the Italian persuasion. The chicken is stuffed with basil pesto, tomato slices and a little parmesan cheese, browned in a skillet, and then finished in the oven. While the chicken is cooking, saute some asparagus with a little balsamic vinegar in the same skillet you used to brown your chicken. Transfer the asparagus into the oven on top of the chicken with a little added parmesan cheese.

To round out the meal, one of my favorites: spaghetti squash. The hardest thing about this squash is cutting the thing open, so be very careful. Scrape out the seeds, put cut side down in a pyrex plate and cover with saran wrap, and into the microwave for about ten minutes. That's it! With a fork, scrape the insides into a serving bowl with butter, salt, and pepper (more cheese if you like). That's it—it comes out sort of like spaghetti strands.

The full meal is done in about thirty minutes. The trick, of course is to have everything you need on hand, so a little weekly preplanning is required.

Italian Chicken, Asparagus and Spaghetti Squash Dinner

(recipe/grocery list)

(4 servings)

4 Skinless, deboned chicken breasts

8 teaspoons Pre-made basil pesto

3 Italian tomatoes, slices

1 cup Shredded Parmesan cheese, divided

1 cup Seasoned flour (you can make you own—I use House Autry)

1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 bunch of Fresh Asparagus (several spears per person)

2 tablespoons Balsamic Vinegar

1 Spaghetti Squash (one squash makes 4 servings)

Salt/Pepper to taste

2 tablespoons Butter

1 quart of your favorite Ice Cream for dessert

Preheat oven to 325°.

Slice chicken breast open (like a book) without cutting all the way through. With the edge of a saucer, pound the meat across, then up and down. This tenderizes and thins. Spread about two teaspoons of pesto on one of the cut sides, top with a couple of tomato slices and a good sprinkle of parmesan cheese.

Close chicken and dredge both top and bottom with seasoned flour. Repeat with all breasts.

Add about a tablespoon of olive oil to large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Place floured chicken breasts into heated pan. Do this in batches if you're making more that 3 or 4 pieces. Don't overcrowd your pan. May need to add a little more oil. Brown for about 4 minutes on each side, turning carefully.

Move browned chicken to a casserole dish and place in the preheated oven. Cook for about twenty minutes.

Add asparagus to nonstick skillet and shake the pan to coat the asparagus with drippings. Then top with a little balsamic vinegar, and shake the pan again, to get everything coated. Turn heat to low and cook for a couple of minutes, then place asparagus on top of chicken in oven and sprinkle with a little shredded parmesan cheese. Leave in oven until chicken is done.

Cut spaghetti squash in half longways. They have a very hard outer skin, so be careful. When halved, scrape out the seeds, and place cut side down in a pyrex dish that fits in your microwave. Add a couple of tablespoons of water and cover with saran wrap. Cook on high for about ten minutes a half. The outside will 'give' a little when they're done.

With a fork, scrape the insides of the squash into a serving dish, and season with salt, pepper and some butter.

Serve and enjoy!

(Dessert? Ben and Jerry's Pistachio Ice Cream)