40 Minute Pasta

I’m participating in a weight loss challenge that lasts for three months.  One lady was kind enough to organize seven teams of seven people, with each team sharing similar weight loss goals and exercise levels.   Thanks very much for doing this (you know who you are!)  There are no prizes (or at least none that I’m aware of) except the satisfaction of becoming more fit and toned.  And as of yesterday, we’ve lost a collective total of 106 pounds!  How cool is that?

I kept this challenge in mind last night as I made dinner.  It’s been a few days since I got back from vacation and I’ve been way too lazy to go grocery shopping.  I’m not even unpacked.  😦 Lucky for me, we always keep a supply of chicken breasts in the freezer, and I’d had the foresight to take one out to defrost in the fridge the night before.  But what the hell was I going to do with it?  I took stock of my pantry as well as the meager contents of my fridge and started grabbing things.

1 lb penne or ziti (any medium tube pasta will do)
1 T olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 T chicken base or cube of bouillion or 1/2 cup canned broth
1/4 cup dry sherry
3 oz sun-dried tomatoes
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
1 chicken breast, cut into 1-inch pieces
8-oz can tomato sauce
14.5-oz can diced tomatoes, drained
4 oz cream cheese
Salt and pepper

In a large pot, I set 4 quarts of water to boil on high.  In the meantime, I diced the onion, sliced the garlic, chopped the sun-dried tomatoes, and cubed 4 oz of the cream cheese, while the chicken was cut into 1″ pieces, and got out the chicken base.

In a chef’s pan, I heated the olive oil on medium heat until it shimmered, tossed in the onion and garlic, and cooked until the onion was soft and translucent, about five minutes.  I scooped out 1/2 cup of the not-yet-boiling-but-still-pretty-damned-hot water and dissolved the chicken base in it to make a broth.  Poured the dry sherry and the chicken broth into the onion/garlic, dropped in the sun-dried tomatoes, thyme and bay, and then let it all simmer for five more minutes to cook off the alcohol and rehydrate the tomatoes at the same time.

At this point, the water for the pasta had come to a rolling boil; I added a generous pinch of salt and dumped in the pasta before giving it a stir.  I added the chicken to the pan of onions, and gently cooked until the chicken just lost its pink color before adding the remaining ingredients.  I let it simmer for yet another five minutes to cook the chicken through.

In the meantime, the pasta was cooked until it was a shade firmer than al dente (about eight minutes) and lightly drained before going into the pan with the tomatoes.  I stirred it around and let the pasta continue to cook in the tomato sauce for ten minutes.  If I’d been just a bit more patient, I’d have topped this with grated Parmigiano.  But I’m not, so I didn’t. 😀  And it was still delicious!

The thing with this dish is it’s super-adaptable to your taste.  I mean, if you like it spicy, toss in some red pepper flakes.  Want more veggies?  Add some mushrooms or olives or spinach.  You could also use low-fat ricotta if cream cheese isn’t to your liking, though I couldn’t taste the cream cheese at all.  Or no dairy at all if you’re trying to cut down on cholesterol and calories.

Did you notice that everything was cooked in increments of five minutes?  That’s how much time I allotted for each step, and I also tried to maximize my time by doing double duty wherever I could (like instead of boiling water separately for the chicken base, I just used some of the water meant for the pasta).  It’s also a lot easier for me to estimate total cooking time when I break it down into five-minute blocks.

My point is, it’s not as big a pain to cook a decent meal as we sometimes think it is.  This pasta dish took me all of 40 minutes to put together.

What are your kitchen time-saving ideas?

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