family dinner

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Use What You've Got

By Parker Westbrook

This past weekend while visiting my parents in Houston, I found myself sitting on a barstool, looking over the bar that separates my parents' kitchen from their dining room, watching my stepfather cook. We were enacting a ritual we've been participating in for over 25 years. Indeed, this is how I learned to cook.
Many evenings after finishing my homework I would sit and watch him prepare the family dinner, sometimes giving me tips on slicing, or the secret formula for making cast iron skillets last for generations, but often he worked in reverent silence. A meal in our house was something given as a gift, an act of love as much as sustenance. Over the years Bernard & I have poured over cookbooks and magazines together, debated putting the garlic in first or last, and shopped for herbs & spices with a fanaticism I usually reserve for shoe shopping.
Here is what I watched him make last weekend. I recommend it.
First, he put some chicken breasts on the grill on the back porch. Back in the kitchen he boiled water for the mini penne (we find regular penne difficult to gracefully get into one's mouth, even with our alligator gobs).
In a skillet, he warmed up some olive oil, and added some very thinly sliced onions, green bell peppers, mushrooms, & garlic, all sliced long, not diced. After these were softened a bit he added one can of artichoke hearts and one can diced tomatoes and let everything simmer together, with some herbs & spices. Probably it was oregano, salt & pepper. Frankly, I wasn't watching that part, but that's what I usually use, so we'll go with that.
Once the chicken & the mini penne were done he thinly sliced the cooked chicken and added it, plus the drained pasta to the tomato mix. This dish he made up on the spot using ingredients he already had in the kitchen, and I assure you it was very heaven.

Here are the changes I made when I tried it at home a few days later. First, I forgot to buy a green bell pepper, so I instead used a red one that I already had sitting in the fridge. Very tasty, but the green pepper added a nice color to the tomato sauce. Though I bought mushrooms, I forgot to add them, so they're probably all shriveled up in their bag by now, but such is life.
Also, since I wouldn't be feeding chicken to my vegetarian husband, I used ricotta & spinach tortellini instead of the mini penne to add a bit more heft to the plate. I had purchased some fresh chick peas (God bless Central Market), but don't know how to cook fresh ones & didn't want to deal with them, so in my refrigerator they still sit. They have tiny little sprouts which make the look like tadpoles, and thinking about them is making me want to eat them. I have a feeling you'll be learning how to cook fresh chick peas soon.
The last change I made was to cook the sauce in a cast iron skillet which raises the iron levels in the sauce as much as 29%. It also makes the sauce taste a bit more piquant, so be warned.

Either way you cook it, this is a really easy, fast & delicious dish, & it makes great leftovers. I'd love to hear any versions you make of it, which I will happily pass along to Bernard. Some rituals are worth keeping.

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