Cheesy Chicken Pasta Bake

Let me admit something…no matter how many recipes I may have saved, nothing beats food I already know. Sometimes all it takes is just re-imagining to make something new again. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Italian (or Italian inspired) food. There’s only so many times in a row you can have chicken parmigana but you can still use chicken, cheese, pasta and sauce!!

This is something I came up with one night because I was bored eating chicken and pasta side by side. So, I figured why not combine it? It’s just as quick as a lasagna but definitely less labor intensive. You can make the pasta while you’re making the chicken but you want to give the chicken a little bit of a head start. If you do make the pasta first, toss it with a little olive oil so it doesn’t turn into a giant clump. I used sauce that I had frozen but you can use jar sauce. No need to make it fresh until you want to. I also used pre-shredded cheese. It melts pretty nicely.

In terms of pasta, you can use any kind you’d like. I used fusilli but that’s because its one of my favorites. I like the way the sauce sticks to it. But penne or rigatoni would also work well. When I season my chicken, I always use salt, garlic powder, season salt, and poultry seasoning. You can use whatever you like but that’s just me. And the sauce doesn’t have to be hot since you’re going to make it. Just reserve enough to spread over the top of the bake to serve. This is also a great meal to have as a make ahead. You can put it all together, throw it in the fridge and then bake it when you need it! That being said, here’s your recipe!

Cheesy Chicken Pasta Bake
1 lb. pasta
1 lb. boneless chicken breast
2 cups tomato sauce
1 8oz. package shredded mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 350. In a small container season chicken. Add a dash of Italian seasoning. Pour 1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil and 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar. Let sit for at least 15 minutes to marinate.

Line baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place chicken on sheet and bake approximately 7 minutes per side.

In a medium pot, cook pasta to al dente.

When chicken is cooked leave out to cool. Chop into small to medium sized cubes. Drain pasta and return to pot. Spray or grease bottom and sides of 9×13 inch baking dish.

In pot mix pasta, chicken, half the cheese and 1 cup sauce. Transfer mixture into baking dish. Cover with 1/2 cup sauce and rest of cheese. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake 10 additional minutes to brown the top.

Serve topped with warm sauce.

cheesy chicken bake

Tri-Color Pasta Salad

We already know how much I love pasta. It’s incredibly versatile and you can eat it hot or cold which is perfect for those days when you don’t want to cook or just want something quick.

Now that summer is quickly approaching, the weather is definitely starting to get warmer a lot faster than I had anticipated. When it gets really hot the last thing I want to do is stand over a hot stove or oven, even though we do have an AC unit. That’s where pasta salad comes in. Its something that you can make in bulk and throw in the fridge so that if you’re hungry all you have to do is grab a bowl (or if you’re me sometimes just a fork).

I have been making variations of this pasta salad for years with different kinds of ingredients. It really depends on how much money I want to spend or what kind of taste I have. The recipe I’m posting is my pasta salad in its most basic form with the fewest ingredients. When I’m feeling fancy, I’ll add roasted peppers (I’ll post my tips on roasting your own or you can use the kind in a jar), cucumbers (I prefer to use the Hothouse variety because they have fewer seeds), and basil (I buy it fresh and just julienne it). You have options with your cheese size. You could buy a big block and chop it, or use different sized mozzarella that comes in a container. I ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS use fresh mozzarella. It just really transforms the taste. Any other sort of pre-packaged  mozzarella is just too salty and that’s really the job of the kalamata olives. You could probably use just regular green olives but I prefer kalamata based on the color and size of the olive. Don’t use black olives; they have no real taste. You can use either cherry or grape tomatoes, I don’t recommend anything bigger because then you really have to cut them up and there are seeds, and it gets wet and no one likes that. Plus, my boyfriend hates tomatoes so I like to make it easy for him to pick them out.

In terms of pasta, you can use regular rotini if you don’t want to use the tri-color. I feel that we eat with our eyes before our mouth and the more colors in your pasta salad, the better. I really like any sort of spiraled pasta. You could use the wheel shaped (rotelle),  or fusilli as well. I tried oriechette (ear shaped) once but it all just kind of stuck together. In previous incarnations of the salad I used to make a balsamic vinaigrette but this time I was going for something a little lighter and used red wine vinegar. If you were going to use the balsamic, taste it after 3 tbsp. Because it’s a little stronger than the red wine vinegar you may not need as much.

Funny story about this particular endeavor of pasta salad making. My sink was full of dishes and I didn’t want to put my giant pasta strainer in to drain my pasta. So I just decided to use the lid of the pot and pour the water out. Seemed like a good idea…and it was until the lid fell off and the pasta spilled into the sink. I was able to salvage some of the pasta and I figured I’d just run the garbage disposal to get the rest. I didn’t realize just how much went down the drain and clogged my sink. It took the poor maintenance guys almost an hour to unclog it. I wanted to buy them a beer afterward because I felt so bad. Without further ado, here’s your recipe.

Tri-Color Pasta Salad
2 boxes (24 ounces) tri-color rotini
1 cup chopped kalamata olives
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
1 cup mozzarella pearls (1 8oz. container)

For the Vinaigrette
6 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
5 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 tbsp. chopped garlic
1 tsp. fine sea salt
1 tsp. Italian seasoning

In in large pot bring well salted water to boil. Cook pasta to al dente. Strain and set aside to cool. Stir a few times once strained to relieve heat from the center of the pasta.

While pasta is cooling, chop olives, slice tomatoes into halves and if you didn’t buy mozzarella pearls chop cheese into small cubes. If you choose to add any other ingredients chop those as well.

In a small container, whisk together all vinaigrette ingredients.

Mix all ingredients once pasta is cool but still slightly warm so it will absorb the vinaigrette. Place in refrigerator to cool completely. Stores up to three weeks (but it won’t last that long!)

pasta salad

Tips for Roasting your own peppers:

With a gas stove
With a pair of tongs, hold the pepper over medium high flame. Rotate the peppers until the skin turns black. Once they are charred all over, put in a brown paper bag. This will steam the pepper and the skin will come off.

With an electric oven
Turn oven to broil. Line a baking sheet with tin foil. Place peppers on baking sheet. Turn a few times to make sure all skin is charred. Remove from oven and place in brown paper bag to steam. Remove skin.

Sa’iyda’s Yummy Tomato Sauce

Italian food is definitely one of my favorite types of food. It’s comforting, delicious and usually quite easy to prepare.

Growing up, a lot of my friends and my mom’s friends were Italian. That’s what happens when you grow up on Staten Island. I spent a lot of time at their houses and there is something very sensory about the smell of tomato sauce. It reminds me of Sunday mornings after sleepovers, big bowls of pasta and sitting around the family table.

Now making sauce is about convenience and affordability as well as nostalgia. Buying tomato sauce can get expensive nowadays and when I make it at home I can freeze portions that will last for months. This will come in handy if I’m low on money and still have a taste for pasta (because I always keep at least 5 boxes/packages in the cupboard). I also just love making my own sauce. The house smells delicious as the garlic and olive oil  begin to warm up. The tomatoes smell warm and homey. And there is something immensely satisfying about tasting your own sauce.

I used a few different kinds of tomatoes in my sauce. The foundation is crushed tomatoes and then I also used a can of diced tomatoes and a can of whole peeled tomatoes that I cut into cubes. I really like the taste of different sized tomato pieces. If you don’t want to use the whole I recommend using two cans of diced. But you definitely want to use some sort of chunky tomato. Make sure when buying your canned tomatoes that you aren’t buying anything seasoned or flame broiled. It will alter the taste of your sauce.

I only had a mild injury (we know boiling liquids and I don’t always agree), the sauce bubbled up and hit me on the wrist where I had previously burned my hand cooking chili. But fear not, it was a minor injury and left no additional scarring.

Also, make sure you cook the sauce at a low heat so as not to burn the bottom of the sauce. Don’t stir it constantly either, you want to let the flavors marry. Unfortunately I didn’t take a picture of the pot because I think I got overly zealous about the eating of the sauce. Trust that it is delicious and sitting in my refrigerator and freezer.

Tomato Sauce

2 28oz + 1 14.5oz can crushed tomtatoes
1 14.5oz can diced tomatoes
1 14.5oz can of whole peeled tomatoes
1 1/2 tbsp. chopped garlic
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 6oz. can tomato paste
2 1/2 tbsp. italian seasoning
3 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. grated parmesan cheese

In a large stockpot, brown 1 tbsp. chopped garlic in 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil on medium-low heat. Once garlic begins to darken and become fragrant, add crushed tomatoes one can at a time. Stir constantly to keep the garlic from burning.

After adding all 3 cans of crushed tomatoes, add 1/2 tbsp garlic and the diced tomatoes. Add the cubed whole tomatoes and stir. Once sufficiently mixed, add tomato paste to begin thickening. Add 2 tbsp. Italian seasoning and 2 tsp. salt. Let come to a boil.

Once sauce is boiling, add the last 1/2 tbsp. Italian seasoning and 1 tsp. salt. Stir and let boil for an additional 5 minutes. Taste and see if sauce is seasoned to your liking. If necessary add more sauce, lower heat and simmer for additional 10 minutes. Once ready, remove from heat. Stir in 2 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese while still hot. Serve over pasta or in a tasty dish.

Sauce can be stored in refrigerator or freezer. I like to freeze sauce in small portions so make defrosting easier.