When we lived in Boston, Braydon and I used to frequent a great little place in the South End called Giacomo's Ristorante. They had great Italian food that was cheap, and you could buy a bottle of wine with dinner that was under $12. As grad students it was a big deal to be able to order a bottle of wine with dinner! I still love the idea of a restaurant where you can buy a decent bottle of wine to drink while you eat for less than $40. Anyway... the item on the menu that Braydon always got was Chicken and Penne in a Pesto Cream Sauce. He absolutely loved it. After we moved away from Boston I was determined to figure out how to make it. We have not eaten at Giacamo's since 2001, but I think this pasta will be with us forever. This is K & O’s favorite dinner in the whole wide world and apparently it is now Meera's favorite too. It is definitely not low-fat but it is sooooooooooo good!
- Add 1 box of pasta (I usually use penne or gemelli, but you can use any shape pasta you want) to boiling, salted water to cook.
- While pasta is cooking… Cut up 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts into bite sized pieces (or, even easier, buy the boneless skinless 'chicken tenders' and just cut them each into 3-4 pieces each).
- Saute some garlic, butter, and olive oil in a pan over low-to-medium-low heat (about 1 tablespoons butter; 1 tablespoon olive oil; about 2 cloves chopped garlic). Add chicken to pan. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Saute chicken until just browned on the outside.
- Remove chicken from pan and set aside, leaving cooking juices/bits in bottom of pan.
- Add cream to pan to de-glaze (I buy the small box/container of cream-- the size of the milk we used to get in elementary school-- and use the whole container; I usually buy 'light cream' but you can make it with 'heavy cream' or 'half-n-half' too).
- Stir constantly, allowing the cream to steam/thicken/condense, but not heating up too much-- only small bubbles should form at sides of pan; do not let it boil because you don’t want to scald the cream. Add a couple of pinches of dried basil and oregano. Cook until cream is thick and sticks slightly to a spoon.
- Add chicken back into pan with cream mixture. Cook together over medium-low heat until chicken is fully cooked through.
- Stir in one container of prepared pesto to the cream/chicken (see my pesto recipe below... or... you can buy perfectly good pesto in the grocery and it works great for this dish. I like the “Buitoni” brand fresh pesto. In my grocery store it is in the refrigerated section with the fresh pastas and prepared sauces, hummus, special sausage meats, etc.). Cook just for a minute until the pesto is incorporated with the cream and heated through.
- Toss chicken/pesto/cream sauce together with cooked pasta.
- Serve topped with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
This is my own version of pesto and I have no idea the lineage of how I came up with this but it is seriously, seriously, seriously good. In the summer I grow pots of basil on our porch. I've been doing this for years -- it started when we got really into urban gardening when we lived in Boston during graduate school. I grow a ton of basil and make pesto almost every week in the summer, freezing most of it so that we can eat it year round. Toasting the pine nuts gives the pesto a nice, heightened 'nutty' flavor; cooking the garlic a bit before (instead of using raw garlic) gives it a more mellow, sweeter flavor. I like to go easy on the olive oil to keep the fat content down -- plus we prefer a dryer, more paste-like pesto to a more oily, liquidy pesto.
- BASIL: Wash, dry, and de-stem a whole lotta fresh basil.
- PINE NUTS: Heat a small pan over medium-low heat. Add a couple of handfuls of pine nuts to the dry pan to roast. Stir occasionally until pine nuts are browned. Remove pine nuts from pan. Set aside to cool (if in a rush, place in the freezer to cool quickly).
- GARLIC: In same pan, still over medium-low heat, cook a handful of whole (peeled) garlic cloves in some olive oil (maybe 6-8 whole cloves; maybe 2 tablespoon olive oil), until slightly browned on all sides. Remove garlic and oil from pan. Set aside to cool (if in a rush, place in the freezer to cool quickly).
- PARMESAN: In a Cuisinart, grate good quality fresh Parmesan. Remove from Cuisinart and set aside.
- Shove all the basil leaves into the Cuisinart. Run Cuisinart until the basil is fully chopped.
- With Cuisinart still running, and add the garlic and olive oil.
- With Cuisinart still running, next add the grated Parmesan.
- With Cuisinart still running, next add the pine nuts.
- With Cuisinart still running, add more olive oil until the pesto reaches desired consistency.
- Salt and pepper to taste.
- Put pesto in the bottom of a container. Cover with a thin layer of olive oil. Store in fridge for 3-4 days, or in freezer for up to a year. (the layer of olive oil on top keeps air from touching the basil, which keeps the pesto bright green and fresh-looking... otherwise it will turn gray/brown).