When the temperature hovers at -10 degrees outside, with wind chills pushing that down to -30, the last thing one wants to eat is rabbit food. ‘Rabbit food’ is what my father called healthy, low-fat diet food, usually associated with salads. No, during these bitterly frigid periods, we turn to warm, comforting foods, which tend towards the fattier side. It’s really hard to get excited about a chilly, crisp pile of veggies when it’s a struggle to keep warm. This brings me to a weeknight dinner dilemma: Fresh zucchini, a couple of ripe tomatoes, and a couple of defrosted chicken breasts stared back from the opened refrigerator. What to do? What to make?
Many times when searching for a meal to make, I get inspired by a quick google search and a ‘mental walk’ through my pantry. One of the advantages of keeping a well stocked pantry is the ability to create a meal without having to dash out to the grocery. Tonight was one of those meals.
My search on The Food Network recipe engine brought up some tasty ideas, but one in particular caught my eye. It was a low-fat pasta alfredo with zucchini, that I knew I could modify to suit our tastes. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, having no cream, but I am pretty handy at fixing marginal dishes. After so many years of reading recipes, I can usually spot a dude vs a winner just by reading and envisioning how it would taste. This one seemed rather bland and one dimensional, containing only the dairy as a protein, but it was a good base to begin with.
The first thing to change out were the noodles, GF is what we have. Second, the recipe called only for zucchini, and I was going to add chicken. I felt the time for cooking the zucchini far too long, so when I fired up my skillet, got it almost smoking hot, added my olive oil and browned up two of the four zucchini. I removed them from the pan and set aside, after a mere couple of minutes, to a plate still crisp because the residual heat continues to cook the tender veggie. I used a julienne tool on the remaining two squash, making nice thin little ‘spaghetti-like’ strands. I figured the heat from the noodle sauce would soften them, but retain a bit of bite that I felt was needed for texture. I defrosted a couple frozen roasted peppers (I buy them cheap in the summer, blacken over the grill, peel, seed, and store away in the freezer for winter meals) sliced in to thin ribbons. (slicing partially frozen makes the task MUCH easier to do!) I peeled and diced a ripe tomato. I chop some parsley and pulled the leaves off of Thyme leftover from Thanksgiving. Combining the veggies (with the julienned zucchini substituting for some of the pasta, which cuts the calories and carbohydrates) with fresh pan sautéed chicken, along with a low fat alfredo, results in a quick, one pan dish that is both comforting and healthy. I pared this recipe down to serve 3, two portions to eat plus leftovers for Big Man to take to work for lunch. If you wanted to serve 4-6, just double the sauce and increase the pasta and veggies accordingly. Wintertime produce brings lovely, cold-sweetened beets, which is what I made into a side salad to accompany the creamy pasta. I dressed it with a simple dressing made from fig vinegar and grape seed oil.
Here is the recipe. As you have probably noticed, I am not a formal recipe writer. I lay out the process as I do it, so read through the entire recipe before starting. If you don’t have fresh herbs, you may substitute dried basil, oregano, marjoram or thyme. You can use the same herbs fresh, and chives would be a wonderful addition. Don’t care for garlic? Substitute shallots. Need to feed hungry teens? Add more pasta. Need to cut carbs? Use very little pasta and add in another julienned zucchini. Don’t have a handy little tool? Hone your knife skills or use a mandoline. Don’t be limited by the recipe, use your imagination and personal tastes. Like bacon? Make a “Carbonara’ version by render some in the pan, dice, and add to the final dish with lots of black cracked pepper. The sky is the limit.
I tried to make this as easy as possible. I hope you enjoy it. This will be my ‘go-to’ for when I have the whim for a comforting creamy dish, only want to dirty one pan and cutting board, and don’t want to blow my calorie budget for the week!
(This recipe can be made with wheat or gluten free noodles)
Protein Packed Veggie Alfredo (serves 3)
4 Zucchini; 2 sliced in half longways, then sliced in to 1/2in half medallions, 2 julienned (long thin strips like spaghetti)
1 whole roasted bell pepper, sliced in to ribbons
1 tomato peeled and chopped in to 1 inch dice
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded to even thickness, seasoned with salt and pepper (put chicken in between 2 layers of saran wrap and use a rolling pin)
1 small handful uncooked Fettuccini noodles, cooked al dente in boiling salted water. (Cooked equivalent of a generous 2 cups cooked. Make a circle out of your index finger and thumb, the pasta should fit in that circle)
1/2 cup non-fat evaporated milk
3/4 cup low-fat milk
1 tbsp flour (all-purpose wheat or gluten free)
1 tbsp unsalted butter
2 Tbsp chopped italian parsley
1.5 tsp fresh Thyme
5 cloves of garlic
grated parmesan cheese
Put a 4-5 quart pan of water on to boil.
While water is heating, begin by heating your large skillet over a med-high heat. Peel and mince garlic. When hot, add about a tablespoon of olive oil to the pan, then garlic, immediately layer zucchini medallions in the pan and season with salt and pepper. Toss and flip over to brown both sides as best as possible. Do not overcook and do not burn the garlic. This will take about 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat, put on a plate and set said. Put skillet back on medium heat, add up to another tablespoon of oil. Swirl pan. Season the chicken breasts on both sides, and brown, cooking until just done. (about 5-8 minutes, depending upon how thinly you pounded them) Remove from heat to a plate that will hold any juices that accumulate, and set aside to rest. There should be a ‘fond’ or browned bits in the bottom of the pan. When chicken has rested for 3-5 mins, slice and chop in to bite sized pieces.
Mix milks together, add flour and whisk to blend evenly.
Cook pasta to Al Dente (cooked but has some resistance in the center of the noodle) in the seasoned water, drain and set aside. (you might need to drizzle with a bit of EVOO to keep from sticking, gluten free pasta benefits from a quick rinse to get rid of excess starch)
In the skillet, turn heat on to medium. Add butter to melt, add last clove of minced garlic and briefly cook (about 30 seconds) until fragrant. Add any juices released from the chicken. These are tasty and will help loosen the fond on the bottom of the pan. Add milk/flour mixture and whisk to combine, scraping up any remaining browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Taste for seasoning and sprinkle in cayenne to taste. Bring to a simmer, then add noodles and let cook in hot sauce for 1 minute. Then add chicken, both cooked and uncooked zucchini, pepper and tomatoes. Heat to warm, tossing with tongs gently. Add herbs and parmesan to taste. (about 1/2 cup) Toss and serve warm.