Chicken Pasta

by Maria on February 19, 2012

If you haven’t met my dad, you’re missing quite an experience. Richard is a retired professor, author and gifted storyteller. He’s funny, highly literate and one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known. He’s devoted his life’s work to the thought leaders of ancient times. He’s a modern-day philosopher, a student of the human experience, the kind of guy who will ask you questions that have no answer.

My dad is classically absentminded — on a lifelong quest to find his wallet, keys or glasses.  He’s into sports, especially tennis and baseball, and he’s still fit and spry at 82. To know him is to love him. And that’s not just the daddy’s girl in me talking, it’s what people have told me my whole life.

When I was growing up, dad was my chief source of entertainment. I’m the  first-born, an only child until the first grade, and he was full of games, giggles and homespun stories. My little friends and I adored him. He was, and still is, the fun dad.

These days, he spends most of his summers in his garden. Despite the decades immersed in deep thought and literature, he’s a farm boy at heart. He grew up in upstate New York by the Hudson River, in a typical big Italian family. I’ve always loved to hear him talk about the farm, the endless hours picking currants and apples as a boy and the fresh, generous meals that would end their days. He lived the local, real food lifestyle decades before it became chic and socially correct.

But my dad recently revealed something painful and shocking:  his mother and grandmother were mediocre cooks

The horror! With this casual, almost throwaway sentence, he shattered the vision I had of his youth and of my long, proud lineage of inspired Italian cuisine. Sensing my  dismay, perhaps, he quickly shared a fondly remembered meal — pasta with red sauce and whole chicken pieces, sometimes with sausage. Rustic, humble Italian food. So, in honor of my dad and our now-tattered heritage: 

Chicken Pasta, serves 4-6

3 tablespoons olive oil
6 high-quality chicken legs
3 very large shallots, sliced thinly
3 plump garlic cloves, minced (or a generous shake of garlic powder)
1/4 to 1/3 cup prosciutto, diced small 
1/3 cup whole basil leaves, lightly packed
1/2 cup dry white wine, preferably Italian
1 28 oz. can whole San Marzano tomatoes
1 parmesan rind
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 to 1 cup pasta water
12 ounces dry pasta
Parmesan cheese, for serving

1. Heat the olive oil over medium to medium high flame in another large pot or Dutch oven. Generously salt and pepper the chicken legs and gently place the in the pot. Brown them on all sides, about four to five minutes per side. Using tongs, remove chicken legs and set aside on a plate.

2. Add the shallots to remaining oil and cook until soft, about seven minutes, stirring often. Add prosciutto, cook for two to three minutes, then toss in garlic. When garlic is soft but not browned, add whole basil leaves. Stir well to combine, and then pour in the wine, removing any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Give the ingredients a few minutes to mingle while the wine reduces.

3. Add the tomatoes to the pot, with their juices. Break up the whole tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Then, pull or cut the chicken off the legs into bite-sized pieces. It will not be cooked through, but don’t worry, it’ll get there. I remove most of the skin, but keep it on if you prefer. Add chicken back into the pot with the sauce. I also throw in a couple of the leg bones to add flavor. Toss in the parmesan rind (my favorite secret to flavorful red sauce).

4. Bring the pasta water to boil and add a generous amount of salt. Add pasta and cook al dente (typically 2-3 minutes less than the package directs). Taste the sauce and add salt and pepper if needed. Just before the pasta is done, remove the chicken bones and parmesan rind from the sauce and discard. Then, add about a half a cup of pasta water to the sauce, scoop out the pasta with a large slotted spoon or spider and combine with the sauce. Continue adding pasta water if the mixture seems dry. You want the sauce to nicely coat the noodles, but not drown them.

5. Serve, sprinkle with parmesan if desired, and soothe your broken dreams with a comforting bowl of pasta and a good glass of red. What else is there to do?

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