Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Rotini with Chicken and Snap Peas - made from leftovers

So you have a brick of frozen tomato sauce taking up space in the freezer left over from the Sunday Gravy. You have a mixed bag of leftover odds and ends in the fridge. You also have a box of pasta, and maybe 30 minutes to get dinner ready before the kids start having a meltdown... this is the answer...

Pasta dishes are a great way to turn a pile of leftovers into a good meal

I've talked about making good use of leftovers several times before- it's something that every home cook needs to be able to do unless you like throwing away food that's started to turn into a science experiment in your refrigerator. Tomato sauce is a common leftover- the way I make the Sunday Gravy, well, let's just say I only know how to make enough to feed a small army- so there are always leftovers- it also stands up to the freezer very well, and is very versatile. I've used it to braise a pot roast, and turned what was left after that into a rich meat gravy. However, you should never overlook the obvious- such as using the leftover pasta sauce as... well pasta sauce.

Just cooking up some pasta and dumping on some leftover sauce would work, but it's not very imaginative, and it doesn't help make a dent in the rest of the leftovers sitting in the icebox like a bacteriological time bomb. The great thing about pasta dishes is that if you handle it right, you can toss in almost any reasonable combination of meats and/or vegetables and figure out a way to make it work.

With that in mind, I'll start by dropping my brick of frozen tomato sauce in a pot, and starting the heat. The time it takes for the brick to melt will give me some breathing room to figure out the rest. I'll also set up a pot of salted water, and start bringing it up to a boil for the pasta.

A good meal can start with a brick of frozen tomato sauce...

I have a nice herb-roasted leg quarter of chicken left over from last night. I strip off the skin, pull the meat off thee bone, and chop it into bite sized pieces- a little time cooking in the sauce will break it down, releasing flavors, and allowing some of the meat to fall apart and almost melt into the sauce.

A little leftover roast chicken, roughly chopped and ready for a warm bath in tomato sauce

So I have a protein, a sauce, and some pasta to put it on, but I could use something else to make the meal complete- a vegetable. Last night's chicken was paired with some boiled sugar snap peas, and I still have enough left to work. They are nice and soft already, so they'll break up a bit in the sauce and release the peas inside- no need to chop them, they'll go in as is, and the cooking/stirring will break them up enough.

Last night's snap peas are still usable...

Once the tomato sauce brick is melted, add in the chicken and the snap peas, and let the sauce simmer while you work on the pasta itself. - if you can get 15 - 20 minutes of cooking time after the brick defrosts, you should be in good shape.

Since you are taking pre-cooked items, and re-cooking them, you probably will only need minimal seasonings, if any. Reheating can do strange things to the concentration of things like salt, so you'll still want to taste and adjust- but don't be surprised if it just works. There are two things to watch out for when reheating tomato sauces- they may turn more acidic when reheated, so have a bay leaf on hand to help counteract that (or use a pinch of sugar for more extreme cases). The other potential problem is over-thickening. Remember that the tomato sauce has already been cooked for a while, and had a lot of it's moisture simmer off when it was first cooked. Reheating will simmer out even more water. If your sauce looks like it's becoming too thick, or starts flinging globs of hot sauce out of the pot as it simmers, it may be too thick. Be ready to counteract this by adding a small amount of extra water.

Once your pasta is cooked and drained, Toss it in enough of the sauce to coat the pasta, and keep some of the extra sauce on hand in case anyone likes a little extra on top. Today, I didn't have any grated cheese to put on top, and I was all out of breadcrumbs... so I went old school and took a piece of slightly stale bread, ran it through the toaster and crumbled it up into a quick breadcrumb, and mixed in a little salt, pepper, oregano, and garlic powder to use as a topping. Breadcrumb (store bought or improvised) as a pasta topping is sometimes referred to as "poor man's parmesan" - and surprisingly, it works well on pasta- adding a little interesting texture.

Rotini in leftover sauce with chicken and snap peas - topped with improvised breadcrumbs.

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