Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Baked Chicken Penne Marinara: Not What it Used to Be

Back when I was first learning to cook without the probing eyes of my parents watching over me, I had a short list of recipes that I made over and over again. I whipped up crunchy baked chicken, lackluster stir-fries, and chicken with pasta, some sort of green veggie, and marinara sauce on nearly a weekly basis. The meals weren't bad -- in fact, to a college student used to subsisting on garden burgers and bowls of Captain Crunch, they tasted pretty darn tasty. They were simple, didn't require a lot of effort and would fill up my stomach quite nicely before I hit "the town" (ie. the bars) with my friends.

It's been a while since I've channelled my former hackneyed chef self, but this past Saturday afternoon, I was struck with a rare insurgence of laziness. In other words, I had just gotten back from a hike, was really really hungry, and wanted to get dinner on the table and in my belly as quickly as possible.

Rummaging through my fridge, I found a half-empty jar of Newman's Own Sweet Onion & Roasted Garlic Spaghetti Sauce, a half-defrosted chicken breast, lots of spinach, and a big hunk of mozzarella cheese. I ignored the little voice in my head that told me to do something that wouldn't taste like it came from the Olive Garden, and proceeded with my plan for what would ultimately be an incredibly boring meal.

I thought that by baking the chicken, pasta, spinach, tomato sauce, and mozzarella together that I would be jazzing it up some -- making it almost like a deconstructed chicken lasagna without the ricotta. It certainly looked and sounded more impressive than anything I ever made back in my minuscule kitchen at 2222 Maple Avenue in college.

It's too bad it didn't taste more impressive.

I have reached a point in my life (ie. adulthood) when the foods that used to please me as a child or even as an undergrad, no longer have the same allure. When I was five, my favorite food was Top Ramen. In grade school, I ate an absurd amount of plain saltine crackers, and my freshman year of college, I would eagerly inhale four slices of Papa John's cheese pizza -- my favorite "fast food" pizzeria at the time. Today, the thought of eating one slice from the chain repulses me.

While I am now more appreciative of the preparation that goes into my food, am willing to try new things like grilled octopus and kangaroo, and have developed a more refined palate, in some ways, I miss the days when all I needed was a big bowl of plain buttery egg noodles to put a smile on my face. I spend so much time worrying about what it is I'm going to cook, what I'm going to order at that hot new restaurant, and what I'm going to buy at the farmer's market, that I have lost the ability to enjoy a mundane bowl of pasta with marinara sauce.

I love calling myself as a "foodie," but the descriptor doesn't come without a pricetag. I'm the girl who snubs a friend's suggestion to grab a quick bite at California Pizza Kitchen after church, a restaurant that, ironically, I used to love a few years ago. I'm the girl who blanches at the thought of grabbing a chicken burrito at Baja Fresh before catching a movie at the Arclight. And I'm the girl who has to bite her tongue when she hears people heaping high praise on the orange chicken at PF Chang's. In just a few short years, my "foodie-ism" has turned me into a bit of a snob. I am slowly morphing into a version of the Anton Ego character in Ratoutoulle who claims that if he doesn't love something, he doesn't swallow.

I like to think that this self-realization will force me to halt my progression into a food snob, and I will suddenly enjoy the occasional lackluster meal at Johnny Rocket's or Cheesecake Factory. Ultimately, however, I know that it's not quite realistic to reverse the process of becoming a "foodie." Great restaurants like Babbo, Pizzeria Mozza, Hatfield's and Fraiche, have forever changed the way I view and think about food.

I can't take back the goat cheese and leek topped pies I've eaten at Mozza, or the squid ink pasta I ate at Babbo. But I can hold tight to my current affection for the few mundane meals that still do bring a smile to my face -- those Amy's frozen pizza dinners, those Trader Joe's Meatless Meatballs, and a simple grilled cheese sandwich paired with a bowl of boxed soup.

Baked Chicken Penne Marinara
4 ounces chicken breast, sliced or cubed
1/2 cup whole wheat Barilla penne noodles
1 ounce grated mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup Newman's Own Sweet Onion & Roasted Garlic Spaghetti Sauce
1 cup spinach, washed and chopped into ribbons
1 clove garlic
Pepper, salt
Red pepper flakes
Italian seasoning
Olive oil

Preheat oven to 35o degrees.

Cook pasta according to package instructions. Meanwhile, saute chicken in skillet with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Add the spinach, mix until slightly wilted. Add the pasta, marinara sauce, and season with Italian seasoning and red pepper flakes to taste.

Layer the pasta into an oven-safe baking dish, sprinkling each layer with mozzarella cheese. Sprinkle the top with parmesan.

Bake, uncovered, until cheese has melted (approximately 10 minutes). If available, top with fresh basil.


Esi said...

Sorry it wasn't what you remembered.

I definitely think that cooking this much and thinking about it and then revisiting things from the past is interesting. I recently when to a birthday party where pizza from Dominoes or Pizza Hut (or one of those places) was ordered and it was all I could do to keep down a slice!

Heather said...

i've definitely turned into a little bit of a food snob, although i do still like some of the old, easy comfort foods. but i hear ya - i'm the first one to turn my nose up at grabbing a burger at chili's or something like that. Nick and I try really hard to find fun budget eats, and cook at home more - but those trendy restaurants are definitely fun, too!

i also remember those days right out school. our standby was sauteed zucchini with chicken parm. so easy and tasty. it's fun to remember those days - even if the recipes aren't as good as they were before.

The Blonde Duck said...

I'm sorry you didn't like it. :(

Sara said...

I'm a total food snob, but I try not to broadcast it :) When I have to eat at chain restaurants, I just grin and bear it! Then I think about all the better ways I could have spent those calories.

Ginger said...

Food snob?? That is me, what can I say? I just know that I can do it better, cheaper!!!! How bad does that sound?

Diana said...

Esi - Ugh, Dominos is the worst! Just the thought makes my stomach churn a little!

Heather - It is fun to remember the bad chef days! I laugh at the memory of my first attempt at crunchy baked chicken and sweet potato mash. Major fail!

Sara, Ginger - I think that's the biggest problem for me. I hate thinking of what I could be eating instead. And it's especially annoying to go somewhere mediocre when I know I can make something better at home for a lot less money.