Penne with Grilled Chicken and Roasted Red Pepper
Growing up in an era where internet connectivity was a low, distant rumble on the horizon, I would be well in my teens before I first tasted pasta.
I had read about it in magazines, seen packets of it in supermarkets but still, it remained something quite alien to our family of normally adventurous eaters. Somehow, our realm of familiar foods stretched to Asia at the most, only occasionally crossing over to the land of the American fast food. We tucked into shawarmas, pad thais, Afghani kebabs with zeal but for some strange reason, European food remained unexplored.
Until the day the local newspaper in Dubai carried a Pasta Special in its usual weekly food column. There was an easy & seemingly delicious recipe with simple ingredients that we either already had at hand or could easily acquire. So I decided I would make it for the family.
With the typical zeal of a young person new to cooking, I followed the instructions to every last word. If the recipe had asked me to hop while the pasta was cooking, I would have obeyed without asking questions. Ah, the naivety of youth! While the recipe thankfully made no such demands, it did require the pasta to be pressure-cooked for a long time. So I did, despite my Mum’s misgivings about the rather long cooking time.
After all, there was no way that a proper, printed recipe could be wrong, surely? And what did my Mum, who had decades of cooking experience behind her, know anyway? Well, the wallpaper paste that came out of the pressure cooker proved me wrong on both accounts. It might have been a typo in the recipe (pressure-cooked pasta is actually A Thing, A Delicious Thing – Google it if you don’t believe me ) but that ensured that packets of pasta never made it into our weekly grocery shop again. I had scarred everyone permanently with pasta glue – never again, I said once; never again, they said over and over.
It would be a long while before I came out of this pasta-related PTSD and tried my hand at cooking it again. I was married and living in Limerick, Ireland by this time. Once I’d discovered the joys of a properly cooked pasta, it felt like entry into a glorious land full of possibilities. I holidayed in this land for a long time, making and eating pasta at any excuse I got. And when the kids came along, I sang pasta’s praises for often coming to my rescue when I was too frazzled to cook at the end of the day.
This is one of the dishes I used to make for my children when they were young and still do today when they are not-so-young. It’s a malleable recipe, so I have tweaked it over the years as circumstances have dictated and it still tastes amazing. And I don’t even need to drag my pressure cooker out.
Penne with Grilled Chicken & Roasted Red Pepper
For the Chicken:
- 2 chicken breasts
- 2 tbsp red pesto or chilli pesto
For the Sauce:
- 2 tbsp light olive oil
- 1 small onion, peeled & chopped finely
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled & chopped finely
- 2 tbsp tomato puree
- 1 400g can of good quality finely chopped tomatoes My favourite is Mutti but other brands are more easily available in supermarkets
- 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- salt to taste
- 1 tsp sugar
- ¼ - ½ chilli flakes
Rest of the Ingredients:
- 500 g dried pasta such as penne
- 1 red pepper
- 2 tbsp double cream or butter entirely optional but adds a little hint of richness to the pasta
- a few leaves of fresh basil for garnish
- freshly ground black pepper
- Slice each chicken breast in half horizontally,transfer to a medium bowl, add the pesto and mix well. Set aside while you make the tomato sauce.
- Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat, then add the chopped onion & garlic. Saute gently until the raw smell disappears, about 5 minutes. You don't want to let the onions brown.
- Now add the tomato puree and fry for a couple of minutes, then add the chopped tomatoes, dried oregano, salt, sugar and chilli flakes. Bring to the boil and simmer until some of the water evaporates. Turn off the heat, cover and set aside until needed.
- Char the pepper on an open flame (I use my gas hob) or under the grill until blackened in places. I like to leave the skin and the black bits on for added flavour but you can peel it if you like. Cut into strips.
- Grill the chicken - I like to use a grill pan for this but if you're using the oven for the pepper, you might as well cook the chicken at the same time. Basically, we want it cooked through and charred in places. Cut into strips.
- Boil the pasta in salted water according to package directions. Drain the pasta into a colander while you assemble the dish. Add the pasta back into the pot with the chicken & pepper strips, the tomato sauce, the cream if using and mix well. Add some freshly ground black pepper and fresh basil.