With holiday excesses behind us, it’s good to get back to quick, simple, everyday cooking. This dish is one of my favorite examples of that kind of cooking, in that involves fresh ingredients, using up leftovers and unexpected synapses firing.
One thing I’ve noticed in writing about food for the past five years or so is that it makes me think about food, a lot. Sometimes it seems that everything I see or read or hear or smell or taste has the potential to inspire some cooking idea. A couple of years ago, I wrote about a photo I came across somewhere. It wasn’t a food photo, but rather a shot of a small village clinging to a seaside cliff. Maybe it was somewhere on the Mediterranean, maybe not. The buildings were impossibly brightly colored, the streets impossibly narrow and steep. The very first thing I thought when I saw the picture was, “I wonder what you would find to eat in this place.”
The origin of the pasta dish above was two sentences in a restaurant review in the Chicago Reader: “The cappellacci is particularly recommended. Often referred to as ‘pope’s’ or ‘brigand’s’ hats, these tender pillows are stuffed with sweet squash and Parmigiano, sauteed in sage and brown butter, and sprinkled with crumbled amaretti, the almond cookies that transport this sumptuous northern recipe into the region of dessert.”
The two things that leapt out at me from this passage (and as a writer and lover of long sentences, I bow to Mike Sula for his 43-word second sentence here) were sweet squash and sage. I didn’t have a squash on hand, but there was a sweet potato in the fridge not getting any younger. And the sage plant that had summered in a pot in our yard was giving up the ghost in our living room, less than happy with our bay window. I could immediately taste its salvaged leaves with the sweet potato.
I had neither the patience to make little pasta pillows nor a hankering for something from the “region of dessert.” But pasta sounded like a good idea. Adding onion and garlic to the mix would take the sweet potato in a savory direction. And a little chicken would make it a meal. If you’d like to make a vegetarian version, just skip the chicken and add a generous amount of freshly grated Parmesan cheese at the end.
Speeding up sweet potatoes. Mark Bittman is a genius. Let me just say that right here. Almost four years ago, he wrote a piece about really cooking with a microwave. Turns out it’s a great way to cook lots of vegetables – they retain more color, more flavor and, according to some studies, more vitamins. The microwave is also a great tool for parboiling root vegetables. I first used this technique when I made Roast Chicken with Root Vegetables. Here, two minutes or so in the microwave softens the sweet potatoes for sautéing.
Sweet Potato Sage Pasta with Chicken
Serves 2 generously (or 3 modestly)
1 medium sweet potato (about 10 ounces), peeled and cubed
1 medium onion, sliced
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized chunks (or chicken breast meat—see Kitchen Notes)
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage (or 2 teaspoons dried)
6 ounces uncooked penne pasta (or other short pasta)
Start a pot of water for the pasta. Put the cubed sweet potato in a lidded, microwave-safe container. Add 2 teaspoons of water and microwave for 2 minutes with the lid vented. Test sweet potato with the tip of a sharp knife; the knife should insert easily. You want the potato just tender, but not mushy. If not, microwave it for an additional minute and test again. (I’ve made this twice—one sweet potato was done in 2 minutes, the other took 4 minutes.)
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium flame. Drain sweet potato and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring and turning occasionally. Add onion and toss to coat. If using dried sage, add to pan now. Cook for a minute or two, stirring occasionally. Add chicken to pan. Season generously with salt and pepper and cook until chicken is just cooked through, stirring occasionally, 5 to 6 minutes. Add garlic to pan and cook until just fragrant, about 45 seconds. Remove from heat.
Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, reserving 1/4 cup cooking water. Add to skillet with sweet potato mixture and toss to combine. If the dish seems dry, add a little reserved pasta water, a tablespoon at a time (I didn’t need any). If you’re using fresh sage, sprinkle with 2/3 of the sage and toss to combine. Divide among shallow pasta bowls and top with remaining sage. Serve immediately.
Choosing, preparing chicken. Boneless, skinless chicken breast meat may be more readily available, and it will work fine for this dish. But I find chicken thighs more flavorful and less likely to be dry. If you can’t find chicken thighs that have already been boned and skinned, it’s easy to do it yourself—and as a bonus, you’ll save a lot of money. You’ll find excellent instructions at allrecipes.com. Whether you choose breasts or thighs, you want 1-1/2 to 2 cups of cut-up chicken.
Related post: Roast Chicken with Root Vegetables