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?


Jordana February 19, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Beautiful post about your father. As for the food, it sounds wonderful. I will try this recipe.

Beryl Ament February 19, 2012 at 4:18 pm

Surely if you describe Richard as absent-minded, he could have mislaid his memories of his mother’s cooking skills? Let’s hope.
Now I am upset—what do my children go around saying about me? I was recently guest VIP at my granddaughter’s school VIP Day, and she introduced me to her class by saying, “This is my grandma. She is an awesome cook.” A seven-year-old made my day.

Maria February 19, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Your legacy is intact for the future generations of Aments! Love that girl. And, yes, we were all perfectly content assuming Grandma was the Italian version of Julia Child.

Ann Trede Minadeo February 19, 2012 at 8:20 pm

In defense of my Grandma Minadeo those women worked their tails off all day. Did our dads think they were gonna get fine cuisine after a day on the farm? If it were me they would be lucky to get bread and water!!!
Nice recipe Maria! I’m going to try this one.

Maria February 19, 2012 at 8:38 pm

Ha, ha! I had a feeling this post might get a response from some of the Minadeos! To his credit, Dad did say Grandma Minadeo worked really hard, and that his Grandma was out in the fields with them all the time. Glad you commented, Annie.

Halina Minadeo February 21, 2012 at 2:34 am

Ann, your Uncle Bert may have been too hard on the matriarchs. As you say, the ladies were exhausted with the field labor, housekeeping, child rearing, leaving precious little time for la bella cucina. However, there are indelible gustatory traces forever stamped on his store of memories. He is always reminiscing about the peerless potato gnocchi which his grandmother used to make. One day, he tormented nonna to make him a cauldronful. Then, as the gnocchi were sitting in the sink, still in the pot, little Dickie somehow managed to throw a laundry soap into the water, contaminating his anticipated treat. “I remember how I bawled,” quoth he. Also, he often wishes that someone would fry him some dough–in lard! I have promised to attempt that, substituting olive oil. Also, I am to make the famous fried bread with anchovies and the cheese pie–someday. Sigh.

Maria February 21, 2012 at 10:42 am

I love the sound of bread with anchovies and cheese pie. Is cheese pie pizza or something else? I also remember him talking about meatballs – maybe his grandmother’s – that he’s tried often to duplicate without success.

And “mediocre” was my word, not his – he’s always spoken of them with respect. I asked if they were great cooks, and he said something like, “yeah, they were all right.” His tone was matter-of-fact rather than critical.

Mostly, I was poking fun at my overly romantic vision of his life on the farm. I never met either grandmother. But it sounds as though they were like many of us … busy, productive women trying to get dinner on the table.

Richard Minadeo February 21, 2012 at 7:18 pm

Really all of this reflects too harshly on the grandmas. Beside the cheese pie, which is not pizza but a pie with ricotta, and fried dough there was so much more that sustained me deliciously, e.g., simple beans and bread, freshly baked Italian loaves mixed with those luscious legumes made me grow vigorously till I reached 5’6″ and began to shrink. See the preface of my “1492 and All That” for a further note on the shrinkage. Maria, your post made my orbs moisten. Those were great days.

Richard Minadeo February 21, 2012 at 7:19 pm

Maria, the next time that you make that delicious dish, please invite us.

Deb W. February 21, 2012 at 10:45 pm

Mar… This little (now grown) friend of yours still thinks your Dad is the cats meow…
I used to make some version of a ricotta cheese pie, however mine is a savory type; not sweet as is, I believe, the traditional ricotta pie. Happy to share the recipe with you should you want it.

Maria February 22, 2012 at 8:13 am

I’d love to try your savory ricotta pie recipe. So great to see you here.

merry jennifer February 23, 2012 at 7:15 am

I love this story, Maria! You had me smiling with the “now tattered heritage” line. :)

August McLaughlin March 26, 2012 at 11:07 am

Looks and sounds delicious! I love the way you incorporate personal stories. Food is so much more than calories and nutrients. :)

Jamie April 17, 2012 at 8:14 am

What a touching post about your dear old dad and your “tattered heritage” made me smile. I lost my dad before we could ever really ask him about his youth, his family, the food he grew up with so you are one lucky daughter. And this pasta dish will most likely make up for all that mediocre cooking in your family’s past. Perfect, tasty dish!

Kate @ Kate from Scratch February 8, 2013 at 8:21 pm

Looks delicious! A great comfort food and I just love that plate! So pretty!

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