At 5:30 p.m. on a recent night, I had difficult decisions to make. Should I:
A) Sit on the couch with my feet up on the coffee table, playing the mildly addictive game Block Champ on my cellphone?
B) Fold three loads of laundry?
C) Cook dinner for my husband and daughter, who were due home in half an hour?
I wanted to do A, even though B was becoming crucial, as we were all out of underwear. But C seemed the ideal way to procrastinate about B. Dinner it was!
The problem was, I had no idea what to make. It had to be something fast and of course it had to be tasty. We were in between grocery trips and the fridge was somewhat bare of fresh vegetables, so my pantry staples would have to do the heavy lifting.
I found a pound of chicken breast strips in the fridge, along with an old carrot. (Old carrots seem to feature prominently in many of my recipes. Rest assured, we do occasionally have new carrots! Otherwise, how could they get old?) From the pantry, I pulled penne pasta, a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup, a small jar of pimientos and a small can of mushrooms.
It looked like we’d be having some kind of creamy chicken pasta dish. I set salted water to boil for the penne and then started the sauce. I poured a couple tablespoons of olive oil in my ancient black skillet, along with salt, lemon pepper and a very generous five cloves of minced garlic. The garlic sizzling in the pan made my mouth water, so I knew I was off to a good start. I chopped the chicken into bite-sized chunks and browned them in the oil and garlic. I nearly added onions but I decided that I really wanted the garlic to shine through and not be forced to compete with another allium.
Next, I julienned that old carrot and tossed it into the pan, along with the jar of pimientos (with the juice) and the can of mushrooms (with the juice). Now I had chicken simmering in a nice broth.
Cream of mushroom soup works beautifully as a pasta sauce. It also acts as a thickener because it contains flour and cornstarch. I added a whole can, scraping out every last bit with a spatula. I whisked the soup into the sauce and set it to simmer on the lowest heat setting.
By this time, the pasta water was at a roiling boil, so I added five big handfuls of penne rigate. (That’s how I measure pasta for our family of three — by handfuls. It’s not precise, but five handfuls turns out to be just enough for dinner plus three small portions for lunch the following day.) A note on penne, Italian for “pen,” owing to its quill-like shape: There’s plain penne (aka penne lisce), which has smooth sides, and penne rigate, which is penne with ridges down the sides. I much prefer penne rigate, because all those little ridges are better for soaking up sauce.
When the pasta was cooked al dente — meaning just enough to give a little resistance to your teeth as you bite into it — I drained it and tossed it with a little olive oil and just a dash of salt. I let the pasta rest for about two minutes then added it to the sauce and mixed it around until the penne was well-coated. Pasta continues cooking even after it’s in the sauce, absorbing the flavor, which is why you want to merge the two elements just before serving. Sauce on top of relatively flavorless pasta will never be as good as pasta that’s “finished” in the sauce. It’s science or something.
It finished cooking just as my husband and daughter walked in the door. I had it on the table by the time they washed their hands and fed our cat, Clementine, whom we must feed before dinner or else she’lI demand service by scratching our armchairs, the little monster. I served the pasta — delicious, full of flavor, with nice, meaty chunks of chicken and pretty specks of red from the pimientos — with fresh basil and ground Parmesan. I was, as the British say, pretty chuffed with myself.
I did eventually fold that laundry, by the way. Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today, or so they say. Or, as I like to say, never do immediately what you can do eventually, after a few more games of Block Champ.