When I first met Allen, he was a still a student at MSU, and was working two jobs. I had just graduated from college and started my first semester of teaching in Battle Creek, Michigan. Neither of us had much money, but I loved trying new cooking techniques and he loved sampling my cooking. If you haven’t read the back story of how he “taught” me to cook, you can read it here in the About section of this blog.
Thinking back to Allen’s cooking efforts in those early days, I can certainly understand why he enjoyed my cooking–or anyone else’s–at that time. That must also when I started making lots of extra food. Then he could take something “to go” whenever he returned to East Lansing. He was SO appreciative of my cooking, I decided to ask him what he usually ate when he was cooking for himself. Honestly, this was his response. “Oh, I usually cook some Minute Rice, then I heat up a can of chunky beef and vegetable soup to pour over top.” No wonder my cooking was appreciated!
Allen and the kids used to tease me about my need to have a plan. Even on weekends, I would say to my little group: “Okay, what’s the plan this weekend?” After the groans and eye-rolling, they shared agendas so we could coordinate and cover all the bases. Who was driving where, when, and with which kid?
I really did need to plan ahead in order to have allergy-free, homemade meals each night. As a result, I usually had a written weekly meal plan. Then we could thaw food, pick up any missing items on the way home from work, and coordinate dinner time with other activities. And I could make sure Allen was ready to cook on those days when I was too busy, or just needed a break from cooking. I don’t know if I should admit this or not, but I still make a weekly meal plan…it’s just who I am.
This recipe was Allen’s favorite go-to dish as part of that regular planning. My son Karl came over the other day and mentioned that he was hungry. Then he asked if I had anything to eat. Silly question. I just happened to have “Papa’s Famous Chicken” in the fridge. It was ready to warm up, since I planned on sharing it on my blog this week.
Making our own salad dressing has always been a priority due to the sometimes-scary reactions (anaphylaxis) my children had to unknown ingredients in food. But we did take a shortcut with Good Seasons Italian Dressing Mix. Neither child had an adverse reaction to the herbs and spices in that little packet.
So, Allen would mix up the dressing, using less oil than needed for salad dressing, and use it to sauté chicken. Then he would serve it over noodles. Occasionally, Allen served it over rice. I always preferred brown rice, but it takes longer to cook, and he loved white rice, so, yep, sometimes he served it over Minute Rice. But we all preferred it over pasta.
Sometimes, I now make it without cutting up the chicken breasts. When I do that, I sauté the chicken on one side in a bit of plain olive oil. After I flip the chicken breast over, I add the mixed up Italian dressing. The whole breast takes longer to cook than the pieces, so if I added the dressing mix right away, the particles of herbs and spices would burn before the chicken is cooked through.
Combine the Italian Dressing Mix with 1/3 cup olive oil, 1/3 cup vinegar, and 2 tablespoons water. I like to put the dressing in the freezer for just a few minutes because it helps thicken the well mixed dressing and keeps it emulsified while prepping the chicken. Allen started doing that also.
Start the pasta water so the pasta will be cooked when the chicken is done. Trim and cut the chicken breasts into bite sized pieces. When the pasta is almost done, pour a couple of tablespoons of the Italian dressing into the pan. Add the chicken, and don’t bother it for a couple of minutes so it gets lightly browned.
Stir the chicken after about 3 minutes, flipping pieces over to cook and brown a bit more on the other side. The total cooking time should only be about 5-6 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken chunks.
Using a large, slotted ladle or strainer spoon, scoop the pasta out of the water onto the chicken. Don’t be too careful about straining out the water completely, because the starchy water helps emulsify the sauce. I then add an additional scoop (about 1/4 cup) of the pasta water because it not only adds flavor but helps thicken the sauce, so it clings to the pasta.
And there you have it, Papa’s Famous Chicken. Here is the recipe, in all its glory.
Papa’s Famous Chicken
- 1 package (0.7 oz) Italian Dressing Mix
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 1/3 cup vinegar (apple cider, chive, white, or other choice)
- 2 Tablespoons water
- 4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized chunks
- 8 ounces pasta
Combine olive dry Italian dressing mix with olive oil, vinegar, and water. Shake vigorously to combine; set aside (can be chilled).
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, add the pasta; reduce heat. Stir and allow to cook until al dente, according to package directions.
While pasta boils, sauté the chicken in about half of the mixed Italian dressing, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Stir and continue cooking the chicken until done; about 2-3 minutes more.
Scoop cooked pasta directly from pot into the pan of chicken. Stir to combine, then add an additional ladle full of pasta water (about 1/4 cup) into the pan. Mix it all together and serve immediately.