Mozzarella and Chicken Pasta Crisp

When I was younger, my favorite thing about going to the mall with my mom was hitting up the food court (No, I wasn’t an exceedingly chubby little girl, why do you ask?).  Walking amongst endless opportunities for food just made my heart glow, even if the only place I ever ventured to was Sbarro’s Pizzeria.  And while I am the adventurous sort when it comes to food and I will try nearly anything at least once, the most heart warming, soul hugging, tummy tingling entrée was the baked ziti, hands down.  Warm gooey cheese with the slightest hint of a crisp on the outside… oh just enough to make my mouth water right now.

That said, the dish I prepared last night was nearly nothing like that all.  It really only came to mind because I did bake my pasta dish, and there was melty cheese, but the similarities end there. Reminiscing about food is always a joy though, so for the record, try Sbarro’s ziti sometime. Anyhoo… J

What I whipped up last night was inspired by my televised love, The Food Network, again.  This time Giada… oh annoying Giada, so smiley and scrunchy.  But as I was in need of making dinner, and had no desire to spend countless hours in the kitchen being psychotically ambitious, the dinner she created yesterday was both simple and tasty, two very key ingredients to my dreams of life in general.  (Who doesn’t want a tasty life, after all?).  Alas, no pictures this time, because my mozzarella chicken pasta crisp was consumed faster than I’d planned for, but that is a good sign!  No picture is good!  It lets you imagine the warmth of melted cheese comingling with pasta shells and sautéed veggies, with a golden parmesan crust just glistening over and around savory chicken…

(taken and edited from The Food Network, courtesy of Giada… forgot her last name, hehe)

Ingredients:

  • ½ to 1 lb chicken breast, cut up in small cubes
  • Crushed red pepper flakes
  • Dried oregano
  • ½ yellow onion, sliced
  • ½ red and green bell peppers, diced up in cubes
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tbsp cumin seeds
  • Salt and red pepper
  • Penne pasta or similar
  • ½ cup chopped parsley and/or basil leaves
  • ¾ cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 2-3 tomatoes, diced (or 1 can of diced tomatoes)
  • Breadcrumbs and grated parmesan cheese

Well let’s get business taken care of first.  Preheat your oven to 400 degrees, and have a baking dish ready, oiled and buttered.  Boil a pot of water next, add some salt, and once it’s got a nice boil, add your pasta.  Make sure not to cook it completely, but just a measure or two before it’s al dente (it will be baked as well, so no need to boil to completion).  Drain pasta and set aside.  I like to use wheat pasta, so it always takes longer than regular… keep that in mind.

Separately, take your diced chicken and season it with oregano, salt, and chili flakes to taste.  I don’t quantify spice too often because really it’s a matter of personal preference.  Just do what feels right (go light on the salt though – it can always be added later).  Get a small frying pan, drizzle some canola oil, heat it up and begin to brown the chicken on medium-low heat.  Add 2 cloves of minced garlic to it, and a teaspoon of garlic paste as well if you have it.

In another frying pan, add 1-2 tablespoons of oil, and on low heat fry the onions and bell peppers, adding the other garlic clove, cumin seeds, 1-2 teaspoons of red pepper.  Lightly toss, let it all sauté.  Once the veggies begin to absorb the heat, cover the pan, turn the heat to a low, and let them cook together for a time.

When the chicken is all nicely browned and looks to be cooked all the way through initially, add the chicken to the veggies, which should now be getting soft and simmering in aromatic goodness.  Allow the chicken to swim in some of that tummy rumbling aroma and be infused with the scent of cumin and caramelized onion…

At this point, add your mostly cooked pasta to the baking dish, and sprinkle nearly all of the mozzarella on top of it, watching as the cheese begins to unite with the pasta shells in melted harmony.  Take the veggie chicken mixture and pour that on top of the cheese.  Add the chopped basil/parsley, and the tomatoes.  Don’t hold back on the soupy juices of the tomatoes – the liquid will help cook the pasta completely, and will make it just saucy enough with the cheese so it doesn’t turn dry in the oven.  At this point you can add more spices as well, if you feel the scent isn’t strong enough.  I say this only because I myself added a lot of chili flakes to the mix, as well as cumin.  And some more garlic.  And salt. J

Mix it all up until all the ingredients are entangled in holy matrimony… it begins to look like quite the holiday dish to be honest, with the reds and greens of the veggies twinkling between the snowy whiteness of the cheese…  Oh how delightful!

Now, add grated parmesan cheese to some store-bought breadcrumbs, enough to coat the entire surface of the pasta dish, and pour it all above it, spreading it out to make a nice crust.  Add little bits of butter all around – when it melts in the oven, it will give the crust a golden brown dazzle that adds so much warmth to the crunch!

Finally, put this in the oven for at least 15 minutes (depending on your dish – I used a wide shallow dish, so 15 minutes was good.  If you use a smaller but deeper dish, go longer, around 30 minutes).

By the time you remove this from the oven, your kitchen will be smelling like all the heavens just arrived in time to take your tummy away to cheesy bliss.  When you did the spoon into the pasta, you can feel it crunch through the crust, and just smoothly scoop the chicken and veggies with the pasta…

And that first bite, you’ll be torn between relishing the parmesan crunch and the mozzarella bath of love, the sweetness of the onions and the savory succulence of the chicken…

and please, don’t forget to garnish it with some freshly chopped cilantro.  The icing (or rather sprinkles) on the cake, as it were.

Oh god, I’m hungry now.

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