Tip #2: “Just Cover It in Cheese” or “Don’t Be Afraid to Riff in the Kitchen”

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I have been craving chicken parmesan. The crunchy, gooey, tomatoey plate of goodness served over a mountain of spaghetti.  Chicken parmesan done right is time-consuming, though. And today, there are no breadcrumbs in the kitchen. (Just today, though. Breadcrumbs–gluten-free or regular–are one of my secret weapons, a la Rachel Roddy.)

I also do not have mozzarella or parmesan cheese.

Or spaghetti. (You are going to have to trust me when I say I really am of Italian heritage.)

These things happen.  We are not slaves to recipes. I do have olive oil, a spaghetti squash from the garden, a ridiculously large half of a chicken breast, whole canned tomatoes from last year’s garden, and the traditional soffritto vegetables…subtract the celery and add a red chili pepper. I have two Italian cheeses. (Around here, I can cover anything in cheese and it seems to work. We are doing our best to support the world cheese industry.) I am not going to be able to make chicken parmesan, but I can make something that will hit most of the flavor notes, and I am going to make it up as I go along.

A lot of the meals my husband and I wind up loving begin this way. One of us wants a very specific thing, but we don’t have all of the ingredients. I try to think about the flavors of what we love about the original dish and see if I can create something that will hit the high notes.

Does it always work? Pfff. Of course not. But I haven’t made anything completely inedible since I was 12, making dinner for the family, and thought dried rosemary might be interesting in a pot of beef and bean chili.

FYI: Nope.

Cheesy Chicken Spaghetti Squash  (serves 4-6)

1 medium to large spaghetti squash (about 3 lbs)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 lb chicken, cut into bite-sized cube’ish shapes (I used skinless, boneless breasts because we had them, but chicken thighs would be great here, too.)
1/2 cup carrot, peeled and diced small (about one large)
1 cup diced red onion (about 1/2 of a large one)
2 tbsp red fresno chili, diced small (Don’t like heat? Use a red bell pepper–the whole thing–who wants to store the rest of the pepper?– or leave it out.)
1 tbsp minced garlic (about 2 cloves)
1 tsp dried oregano, or to taste
1 tsp dried basil, or to taste
15 oz whole, peeled tomatoes with juice OR diced tomatoes with juice OR tomato sauce
salt and black pepper to taste (I probably used a total of 1 1/2 tsp salt and 1 tsp pepper)
1 cup shredded Trugole cheese*
1/4 cup Crescenza-Stracchino cheese, divided*

  1. Preheat the oven to 375. Carefully halve the squash lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and pulp. Sprinkle both halves of the squash with salt and pepper and place them cut-sides down on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for about 1 hour, but at 30 minutes, begin checking every 10 minutes. You do not want the squash to become mushy. The strands should have a bit of bite–but not crunch– to them when you scrape a little to check.
  2. In a large skillet, warm the olive oil over medium-low for about two minutes. Add the chicken pieces, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook until lightly browned on all sides and cooked through, about 7-8 minutes.Using a slotted spoon, remove the chicken from the pan and set aside.
  3. Add the carrot, onion, chili, garlic, oregano, and basil to the pan, along with a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened, about 8-10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and stir to combine. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the sauce to a bubble. Return the chicken and any juices to the pan and stir to combine.  Cook 5-7 minutes, or until sauce begins to thicken.
  4. Carefully add the spaghetti squash to the pan, using tongs to gently toss squash and sauce together. Stir in 3 tbsp of the Crescenza-Stracchino cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.
  5. Spoon individual servings into a bowl, top with about 1 tsp of the remaining Crescenza-Stracchino, and up to a 1/4 cup of the Trugole. Serve.

*We went to a Wegman’s for the first time today, and they had a number of Italian cheeses I had never seen. We bought these two. You could just as easily use ricotta or mascarpone in lieu of the Crescenza-Stracchino and mozzarella in place of the Trugole. Or go in a completely different direction and stir in a soft goat cheese.

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