Pasta, chicken and a vegetable…it’s hard to go wrong. Put together a combination that works for your family, which means a vegetable that everyone will eat. One trick is to grate a vegetable, like zucchini or carrots and cook them in with the sauce, if you are doing a red (tomato) sauce. Or if it’s a more summery pasta salad, just grate them raw onto the pasta. Generally, some grated Parmesan or Romano cheese will encourage the mildly veg-phobic child to consume the dish, in spite of the veg.
Pasta shapes are also something to experiment with; some shapes are just fun…wagon wheels or bow ties for example. Some shapes do a nifty job of sorta concealing ingredients, like the ear-shaped orecchiette or the lily-shaped gigli. There are so many shapes available, it’s a way to involve your children in meal planning…let them select the shape of the day.
Some pasta-with-shredded-chicken standard dishes include:
Penne (or any tubular pasta) with chicken and broccoli. Usually served in light creamy sauce, which could be lemon and white wine, or you can skip the wine and use just broth and Parmesan cheese. You can find a few recipe options here.
Angel Hair pasta (spaghetti, linguine…) with cherry tomatoes, broccoli and feta cheese is popular at my house. You can find the basic recipe in Mollie Katzen’s cookbook, Vegetable Heaven…I’ve tweaked it a bit, but the basic formula is there and it’s great.
Obviously, along with pasta shapes, it is the sauces that change up your pasta meals. Marinara (meatless) or Bolognese (a meat sauce with tomatoes) are two red sauce options. Pesto (the classic, made with basil or varieties using arugula, parsley, spinach or other greens, ground with nuts, oil, possibly Parmesan and garlic) and Alfredo are also popular.
One very important note about cooking pasta. Well, maybe two. The first is that it REALLY makes a difference if you salt the cooking water. Should taste like sea water. Really. It took me 30 years to get that through my head and what a change. So do it. Secondly, try cooking your pasta more ‘al dente’, that is, just for the amount of time suggested on the package. It’s healthier. I can’t really explain it, but click here to see some notes about why…
Something else, along with salting the cooking water, which it took me decades to learn about, but which has become a favorite tool. Here are some ideas that come from an article I tore out of a cooking magazine a while back. My apologies to the author, but while avidly snipping, I failed to save your name. So I cannot give credit to the writer/cook who offered this brilliant, flexible, easy, quick pasta dinner synopsis.
While the pasta water is coming to a boil (add salt just before pasta), poke around in your fridge, freezer and cabinets to find some tasty ingredients. Then heat a little olive oil in a skillet and cook some chopped onion, leeks, shallots or garlic. If you have some leftover cooked meat or sausage, add that too.
Next step would be adding something like mushrooms, tomatoes or seafood to the pan, or blanching a green veg like green beans, broccoli or something leafy like kale in the pasta water and then adding it to the pan. Also a place to use some leftover veg.
When the pasta is al dente, use the strainer to take it out of the water. (One thing I LOVE about this method is that it keeps me from forgetting to save a cup of pasta water…if I’m dumping the pasta into a colander, whoops, it’s gone, every time!) If you want to set some pasta aside for a plain pasta n’ cheese for little people (with some carrot sticks, green beans or other hand held veggies on the side), do that. Just put a little olive oil or butter on top of it, to prevent pasta clumping and sticking.
Use the strainer to lift the rest of the pasta into your skillet and add a little pasta water to make a sauce. Take the pan off the heat and add some herbs or cheese or breadcrumbs to finish it off. Done. Quick, easy and yum.
Pizza and calzone are closely related, with a calzone generally described as a pizza folded in half. In fact some people choose to eat their pizza slices folded over. Of course others use a fork and knife to eat pizza, which you would need for a calzone, usually. But if the calzone is HAND PIE size, then you can eat it with, well, your hands. And of course there are thin crust pizza pies and deep dish pizza…lots of variables here. Stromboli is another name for calzone, which is something I learned at a pizza joint in Pennsylvania.
My favorite way to use shredded chicken on pizza or in a calzone is with barbecue sauce, instead of traditional tomato sauce. Following the lead of my favorite local pizza shop, I add a little bit of sliced scallion/green onion along with the chicken, (they toss on some diced sun dried tomatoes too) all topped with a blend of cheeses. You can’t go wrong with mozzarella, of course, but cheddar, gouda and Monterey jack also make good companions for BBQ flavors. Whatever you have on hand or whatever suits your taste.
That’s my ‘take’ on pizza toppings in general. There are no rules. I love pizza using pesto as the sauce (and remember, pesto can be made with herbs and ingredients other than the classic basil…guess that’s a post for another day). I also enjoy the cholesterol special of an all white (four cheeses) pizza. Shredded chicken would be delightful atop either one of those. But really, you can do up a fantastic homemade pizza using what you (& your family) like or whatever leftovers you find in the fridge. Pizza time here usually includes one traditional tomato sauce & mozzarella pie, with pepperoni; one pie with fresh tomato slices, spinach & goat cheese (maybe a little mozz); and one with a random mix: sauce, cheeses, leftovers (veggies, shredded chicken, crumbled sausage – use up those two sad little sausages left from Sunday breakfast) and extra garlic.
Okay, I said no rules, but there is one. Don’t overload the pizza, until you have practiced enough to be sure of how much weight the crust can carry. Depending on the crust method, you could be disappointed by an inedibly soggy crust or a pizza that is just too sloppy to enjoy. Brushing the dough with olive oil can create a barrier that will help to prevent the topping from making the crust soggy. Another answer might be to put all that filling into a calzone, where it is (ideally) sealed inside the folded crust.
I’ve already talked about how simple it is to purchase pizza dough. It’s also easy to make, in a standing mixer, a food processor, by hand or even in a bread machine (if you still have one around). Not something I do much anymore, so I will post recipes for three different methods here on the Recipes page.
So, one way or another, you have your dough. Now, let’s return to construction and baking. I have a pizza stone and a pizza peel, for baking and moving, respectively. That’s the tried and true way, but over the years, I’ve encountered a few other methods that are tasty, fun and easy. With a peel and stone, you are making a somewhat freeform pizza, ideally round. There are also many styles of round pizza pans out there, some perforated, for a crispier crust. They will make it easier to achieve a circular pie and of course a sheet pan with low sides can make a rectangular pizza, which has a character of it’s own. (Ah, savory memories of sheet pan pizza in Boston’s North End…)
Pizza can be successfully cooked on a grill, as my friend Vito does, spectacularly. If you are inclined to try it, ‘ask’ Bobby Flay of Food Network. He’ll have some tips. I don’t. I have, however, been playing around with my indoor, tabletop grill. One of my favorite new methods is using the Indian bread, nan, which you can get fresh or frozen (Trader Joe’s…) Pita bread will work too, but I’m liking the ‘chew’ of the nan. I heat the bread/crust first, closed inside the panini grill, then when it’s HOT, I open the grill up flat, put some sauce, cheese and toppings on the crust and pop a cover (foil or a lid from a good size pot) to help the cheese melt. Voila!
Another recent innovation: using the trusty, cast iron frying pan. The cooking begins on the stove top, with a finish in a HOT (500° )oven. Brush the pan with a little olive oil and then press your dough flat, spreading it to the edges. On with the sauce, then cook over medium heat for 3 minutes, until the bottom of the crust is nicely browned. Pop the pan in the oven for another 3 minutes. Please remember to use a good pot holder when you remove the pan! Pile on the toppings and cheese and, using that potholder, put the pan back in the oven for 6-8 minutes, until the edge of crust is golden.
Many years ago I created a summertime appetizer pizza that is always a hit. Ingredients are: olive oil, peaches, goat cheese, prosciutto and fresh rosemary. Using a crust of your choice (I started with flour tortillas, but cooked pizza dough, nan, pita or even toasted slices of good bread – you could make them individual servings…), brush lightly with olive oil and then top with the rest of the ingredients, to taste. Heat through in a 400 oven, toaster oven or on a grill. Summer heaven.
For someone who’s avoiding gluten or bready carbs: try slicing a large zucchini (easy to find in August) about 1/4” thick, brush (or spray) the slices with olive oil and broil or grill for a couple of minutes on each side. Top with a bit of sauce, some cheese and a lightweight topping, broil for another minute and enjoy your zucchini pizza!
Moving on with this long-winded, but hopefully helpful, discourse on some of the ways to use shredded chicken…three items left on my original list:
Stir fry with chicken
Pizza or Calzone with chicken & veggies
Pasta with chicken & veggies
Here are some general instructions for STIR FRY.
A STIR FRY is a great place to use left over rice. Could be your home-cooked leftovers, or those dandy little takeout containers of rice from any Asian restaurant. Cold and day-old is best. Of course you can also use this rice to make rice pudding, or in a casserole. You can also make a stir fry that is served on it’s own, on top of noodles or using another grain.
A deep pan with curved sides is best, for STIR-ring. A wok really is the easiest. Although it may seem like a limited-use item, a decent one doesn’t cost much; treat it right and it will last forever. And the thing is: STIR FRY is f a s t!
In addition to the pan, there are a few ingredients that are good to have around:
Soy sauce (go for low sodium)
Plain sesame or peanut oil (Canola would be fine, but not olive)
Toasted sesame oil
Mirin (a Japanese rice wine)
Ginger (Keep a piece of fresh ginger in the freezer; peel it with the edge of a spoon and grate it with a fine hole grater. Or a small jar of minced ginger in the refrigerator is very handy. I am NOT a fan of jarred minced garlic. I think it gets really funky. Minced ginger seems to keep well. My opinion)
Garlic (powder, in a pinch, but fresh has the real kick)
Toasted sesame seeds for garnish
A Note About Protein: If you are using leftover shredded chicken, you’re all set.
If you are starting with raw chicken or other proteins like tofu, eggs (or things I personally don’t eat, like pork or beef), you need to slice the item into bite-sized pieces and cook them first. Then remove from the pan and cover, so they stay warm while you do the veggies. Eggs you scramble, cook and remove. Shrimp is an exception…it will easily cook when mixed in with the hot stir fry for the last few minutes. Or, you can certainly cook them first and hold them aside, if that feels less stressful.
Whatever vegetables you want to use, slice’em up first, before you heat the pan. You can’t really walk away from STIR FRY. The name is a key part of the instructions.
Most grocery stores now sell bags of pre-sliced vegetables. I encourage you to chop your own, but pre-sliced or frozen sliced veggies are an option. Your choice.
When everything is prepped, put the pan over high heat. When it’s hot, usually in about 30-60 seconds, pour in a Tablespoon (TB) or so of your plain oil and reach for your protein (see above) or your first vegetable. If you cook a protein item first, you will probably need another TB of oil when you start with the veggies.
I always start with a sliced onion.
Keep it moving and after a minute, add carrots.
A TB of grated ginger and a couple (minced) cloves of garlic. Stir, stir, stir.
After that, try broccoli, red peppers, cauliflower, green beans, winter squash, sweet potatoes…
You don’t need (or want) to have loads of different veggies; stick with a few that you/your family like.
Keep stirring. It’s okay if some things get a little browned, that’s sweet caramelization happening. But you want to work quickly, so that most things stay a little crisp.
Something soft like zucchini or yellow squash needs very little time in the pan. One idea is to grate the summer squash and add it almost at the end. Frozen peas, fresh snow pea pods and/or mushrooms will also go in for just the last few minutes. There’s also the option of adding a surprise element like raisins, currents, dried cranberries or diced dried apricots. In my purist, brown-rice-vegetarian youth, I often made a dish called ‘Three Precious Fried Rice’ and raisins were one of the ‘precious’ items. The touch of sweetness makes for a nice contrast with the salty soy sauce flavor. Peanuts were another ‘precious’ ingredient…
Make a little space at the center of the pan and add a TB or so of toasted sesame oil to the pan at this point.
Then it’s time to toss in that lovely cold rice. Stir, stir, stir.
Now it’s a flurry to the finish.
Add dried fruit if you like.
Sprinkle around a few TB of soy sauce, a few TB of Mirin and a dash more of toasted sesame oil. Stir to combine.
Taste it. Add more seasonings (ginger, garlic, soy, Mirin &/or toasted sesame oil) to get the flavor you want.
Add the quick cooking veggies (peas, squash, mushrooms) and the protein.
This would also be the time to add any thinly sliced greens like cabbage, spinach or swiss chard.
Mung bean sprouts, anyone?
The pan may be quite crowded by now, but stir thoroughly to get everything hot and seasoned.
Sprinkle sesame seeds on top.
Written out like this, it may seem like quite a production. But it’s not.
All of this can take very few minutes. A typical combination at my house is onions, carrots, broccoli, rice and chicken. With leftover rice and chicken, that means I only need to chop 3 items, plus garlic, pull the seasoning ingredients out of the refrigerator and I’m ready to go. Ten minutes later, we’re eating.
As with most of the dishes I’m sharing here, this one has many variations. Not just protein and vegetable ingredients, but seasonings. Lots of yummy Asian flavors to experiment with…
I hope you’ll try a STIR FRY someday soon.
My whole family loves HAND PIES. What is a HAND PIE? Well, it’s another name for a savory turnover, an individual-sized crusty, hearty delight. A generic name for a small circle of dough, filled with meat or vegetables, folded, sealed and baked. Many cultures have their own portable pie. Handheld food is practical (and fun.) Fillings are a great way to use up leftovers. They travel well and can generally be eaten hot or at room temperature. They freeze well…more ‘money in the bank’.
Three types of dough are commonly used: Pastry (pie crust) dough, puff pastry dough or yeasted (bread/pizza) dough.
In the pastry category you’ll find:
Mexican Empanadas – filled with meat or beans & cheese.
British/Cornish Pasties – made with a wide variety of sweet & savory fillings, both meat and vegetable.
Indian Samosas – often filled with potatoes and peas, are traditionally fried; puff pastry dough can be used for a baked version.
Jewish Knishes – filled with meat, potatoes, kasha, sauerkraut, onions or cheese and baked or fried.
Russian Pirozhki – small pockets of a rich pastry dough (made with egg and sometimes sour cream) that are filled with cabbage and hard-cooked egg before baking.
Some examples in the yeasted dough group are:
Jewish Bialies – like a stuffed bagel.
German Bierrocks (also called Runza) – made with a bread dough and stuffed with meat and cabbage.
German Blachinda – usually filled with sweetened pumpkin.
Italian Calzone – made with pizza dough & filled with meats, cheese and veggies.
Turkish Kol Borek – made by rolling a filling (eggplant, meat…) inside a yeast dough to make logs.
Seeking out some of these ethnic variations, in restaurants or finding recipes, can be very rewarding. The simple pastry doughs generally require only flour, oil, a touch of salt and water. Puff pastry is definitely more of a challenge to make, but is readily available frozen in supermarkets. As for yeasted dough…I recommend making your own bagels/bialies once when you have time and are feeling ambitious. You will forever after have a greater appreciation for a good bagel.
Raw pizza dough can be purchased in the deli/dairy section of almost every market, as well as at pizza restaurants. With just a little practice, making your own pizza crust is very satisfying. Speaking of pizza crusts, I just found a recipe for a pizza crust made with cauliflower. I promise to report after I’ve tried it.
Since we are still discussing things to make with leftover shredded chicken, one way to go is to put the same filling that you use in CHICKEN POT PIE into HAND PIES. It’s even more important to have the filling be well chilled. It makes it so much easier (as in, possible) to fold and seal the little pies. I suggest using the ready made pie crust for this venture. With two crusts per box, you will get four good sized servings.
Here are the basic steps involved in constructing a HAND PIE with chicken pot pie filling…
Cut each ready made pie crust in half, making 4 half circles.
Place 1/2 cup filling on half of each half circle.
Dampen edges of crust with water.
Press edges together with fingers, then crimp edges with tines of fork or twist them tightly & decoratively.
Place on parchment covered (for easy cleanup) baking sheet.
Brush the top of each pie with egg wash (one egg scrambled with water).
Bake at 375° for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. (Timing can vary, so check…)
Cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes.
Some other suggestions from the HAND PIE family: Goya brand Empanada Wrappers are found in the freezer section of many supermarkets. I keep several packages in the freezer; they thaw in an hour or so (which gives you time to make and chill the filling…) They are 4-inch rounds of dough, sort of a cross between puff pastry and pie crust pastry. They finish up smaller (use one quarter cup, or less, of filling) than the half circles of pie dough, but with 10-12 in a package, there’s plenty for a meal for four and maybe a couple leftover – to be fought over – for the next day.
Saute up a filling that includes:
ground turkey (or any ground/diced meat or crumbled tofu)
grated carrot (slip in those veggies)
chopped kale or swiss chard
a squirt of tomato paste (the tube style is so much easier than cans)
cumin, cayenne or ground chiles if you want heat…
salt and black pepper
a bit of water or broth, which you want to boil off, so your final filling is not goopy
some currents, raisins or other chopped, dried fruit
a little bit of rice or another grain; finely chopped nuts or seeds
The most important thing to remember about HAND PIE filling, after the taste, is that it be fairly cool and not too juicy.
It’s not a precise recipe, because you can make it to suit your taste or to utilize leftovers. Herbs, spices, potatoes, cheese…you can go anywhere with this. Since you can taste the filling before you fill the dough, it’s fairly risk-free. And if you find yourself with a bit or a cup of filling leftover, pop it in the freezer (label & date it) for another day.
If you happen to have some GUATEMALAN BLACK BEANS or any other well cooked beans around, a heaping spoonful of beans, topped with some grated cheese makes for a great empanada. If you have left over chili, drain off some of the liquid and use that as a filling. Really, the possibilities are wide open.
I’ll begin with a comment, or perhaps it’s a disclaimer about pastry dough/pie crusts. Back in the good or bad old days, I worked as a baker in a longtime & beloved restaurant in Harvard Square, Cambridge. When you make something by the dozens, every day, five days a week, you get pretty good at it. Among the many sweet and/or yeasty treats we produced, there are three items I recall turning out with pride: French bread, chocolate cakes and pie crusts.
So I know that I can do it and in fact I believe anyone can make a good pie crust, with a little practice. There are many “fool proof” recipes around and the ones I’ve tried are pretty good. If learning to make a good pie crust is a goal for you, I say “Have at it!” Don’t be intimidated: it’s not rocket science. Click here for STANDARD PIE CRUST RECIPE.
That said, if time is an issue for you, as it often is at my house, there is nothing wrong with buying a crust. I am not a fan of the frozen pie shell…I’ve had too many that are cracked, freezer-burned and just dry and tasteless. I was pleased when “ready made” crusts appeared in the dairy case of local markets. There is a popular name brand and many chains now have their own product.
What is nice, in addition to reliable quality, is that when you unroll these babies, if you want to, you can customize. Sprinkle on some cinnamon and sugar if you are making something sweet, like an apple pie, or some dried herbs, grated parmesan and/or garlic powder if you are assembling something savory, like a quiche. A quick roll out with a rolling pin presses these flavorings into the dough and you are good to go.
Purists (my dear friends among them) may sneer at this shortcut, but I say if the 15+ minutes saved means I can make a homemade CHICKEN POT PIE for supper, I can handle the scorn. Maybe it’s obvious that my personal cooking life style at this point in my life requires a blend of practical, healthy and tasty.
CHICKEN POT PIE comes together so easily, it seems almost wrong. If you have leftover shredded chicken, give it a chop into bite-sized pieces. If not, it’s back to the FOOLPROOF CHICKEN POACHING and another opportunity to use some of the poaching liquid. And once again, like the COUSCOUS CURRY, while the chicken quietly poaches, you get to chop the veggies and it all comes together quickly.
This is not a “30-minutes-and-it’s-on-the-table” weeknight meal, because it will take up to one hour to bake in the oven. However, I’ve been known to make the filling in the morning or even the night before, while cooking or cleaning up. Then I can waltz into the house at 5 PM, pull the filling & ready made crusts from the refrigerator and in 20 minutes it’s in the oven & I get to enjoy that precious and delightful out-of-the-kitchen experience (take a walk, play with the dog, read a book, even a quick nap.) When we sit down to eat, it’s as if someone else cooked for me! I love that.
One other note: I’ve discovered that making the filling early, so that it has time to cool first, really does make it easier to build the pie.
I generally make CHICKEN POT PIE in my favorite cast iron skillet, but it can be made in any round pie plate or casserole. Click on the link to find the recipe.
I like to make a few small cuts in the top crust with a sharp knife, for steam to escape and because it looks so professional when the filling bubbles out a little. One hour in the oven, checking after 45 minutes to see if it’s browning evenly. If you can wait 10 minutes or so, after it comes out of the oven, it will serve more neatly.
Have you been introduced to Couscous? The larger, pearl-sized Israeli Couscous is what you might have in a good restaurant. Delicious and classy. But it takes more care and time to prepare. Right now I want to discuss the more finely ground type of couscous. It may look like a grain, but it is made from semolina wheat, so it’s not the thing for the gluten-free diet. But there is hardly anything that cooks up more quickly, as the foundation of a tasty meal.
COUSCOUS CURRY definitely works with shredded chicken leftover from a roasted bird. Truth is, I generally poach the chicken and save the poaching water to use in the final dish. While the chicken is doing it’s thing, off the heat so there’s no need to worry about it, you can chop up the veggies. Love those meals where prep dovetails neatly!
When you remove chicken from pot, measure out & save the ‘broth’. Pour off the excess broth and put that one large pot – an enameled, cast iron dutch oven is great for this – back on the stove. Medium heat, some olive oil and you start sauteing the veggies while the chicken cools. When you are done, the meal stays warm in the pot for a long time, which is handy. Find the complete recipe here.
Personally, if I can get out of the kitchen for a little while (even 10 minutes) before sitting down to eat with the family or guests, I enjoy the meal a lot more. Maybe it’s a pet peeve of mine, but the fact that an hour (or more) of cooking & sweating often leads to a 15-minute sit-down mealtime bothers me. Seems wrong, even if our lives are busy, you know? Just another reason why quick meal prep makes sense.
I don’t want to stray too far from the Uses for Shredded Chicken theme here, but if you try the COUSCOUS CURRY recipe, I hope you’ll see the many possible ways to use this nifty wheat grain. Swap out the seasonings, protein (shrimp?) and the veggies and you’ll have other great, simple meals.
CAESAR SALAD with homemade croutons and shredded chicken is easy to make and easy to love. I have made the dressing from scratch (minus the anchovies…yes, I’m a wimp) and it was wonderful and not that difficult. I’ll dig around and try to find that recipe. For the most part I agree with the woman in the old commercial: “Bottled dressing? Not on my fresh salad!” But the truth is, I am a fan of Cardini’s Original Caesar Salad Dressing, which comes in a bottle. It is available in most major supermarkets.
I choose to use my time making the croutons. Dice up some tired, dried out old bread, pretty much any kind is good. A white bread like French or Italian is classic, but I’ve used some hefty multigrain breads with satisfying results. Heat your cast iron frying pan and cover the bottom with good olive oil. Toss in those cubes of bread and move them around quickly, so that each piece gets to soak up it’s share of olioi. Once they are all coated, turn down the heat a little and sprinkle them generously with salt, pepper and a little garlic powder. Traditional recipes have you rub a garlic clove on the inside of a wooden salad bowl and if you are a garlic lover (which I am), feel free to do that. Because I have a slightly garli-phobic eater in my family, I’ve gone the gentle garlic route.
Keep the croutons moving, to avoid scorching; you will see that they begin to brown and crisp up pretty quickly. Turn off the heat as soon as you see, and smell, that crusty, toasty action beginning. The left-over heat in the pan will complete the process, while you turn to chopping the Romaine lettuce. (If you need to hold the chopped lettuce for a while, cover it with a wet papertowel. This trick works with salads and blanched vegetables like green beans and asparagus. We’ll get back to it another time.)
When it’s time to serve the salad, toss some grated Parmesan cheese and the shredded chicken in with the Romaine and coat it lightly with the Caesar dressing. Top with croutons and toss them in lightly. Add another sprinkle of grated Parmesan and some freshly ground black pepper. Done. Serve. Yum.
Next time, Chicken Pot Pie and Chicken Hand Pies.