It isn’t so hard to eat locally during the winter, that is, if you plan ahead and put food by while it is in season. Canning tomatoes, making jellies, jams and preserves, freezing marinara sauce, pesto and making and canning salsa, and drying and freezing herbs all help families eat the bounty of a local summer while the winter winds blow. Root cellaring, which has become popular again, allows us to eat local potatoes, onions, garlic, squash, pumpkins, turnips, apples and other root vegetables all through the cold season.
But by early spring, most of the stored goodies are gone, and I find myself relying on non-local foods more often, while waiting for the spring-time delicacies to sprout here in Athens County. In March, the blandishments of the Kroger produce aisle work their magic and I find myself buying asparagus from California, a month before it is due to be harvested here in Ohio. And fresh basil, even though there is fresh cilantro I just bought from a local farmer.
Sometimes, I am a bad locavore.
Oh, well. No one should expect to be perfect–just do the best you can for yourself and your family with what you have.
The truth is–the use I put that asparagus and basil to is a good one–most of the other ingredients, except for the penne, lemon juice, Aleppo pepper, olive oil, and the onions, came from local sources. The chicken, chevre, garlic and fresh shiitake were all locally grown and produced, and the chicken stock was made in my kitchen from local chickens and vegetables and frozen months ago.
So I think of this dish as half-local. Which is not bad for Ohio in March.
Now, this recipe could very easily be converted to a vegetarian pasta dish, and with no real loss of flavor. In fact, I think that I would prefer it without the chicken, but Zak and Kat really wanted chicken for dinner last night, so in it went. But, to convert it to a vegetarian pasta, just use tomato-free vegetable broth instead of chicken stock and leave out the chicken. When you saute the mushrooms, toss them in a bit of flour, just as I instruct you to do with the chicken.
The flour serves the purpose with the chicken and giving a dry surface for cooking that will lead to a nicely browned crust, and with mushrooms, it does a little bit of the same thing. But its secondary purpose, that of thickening the sauce, and adding a brown flavor to the sauce, is accomplished just as easily with the mushroom version as it is with the chicken.
As for the fresh basil–you could use another fresh herb in its place, but I am desperately fond of the combination of sweet asparagus and sweet basil–they are so lush when combined together–especially when paired with tart, fresh chevre.
At any rate, here is last night’s dinner, which Kat, Zak and I all loved, and which will probably appear again, in various incarnations, over the next month or so as the local asparagus comes into season.
1 1/2-2 cups thin young asparagus, bottoms trimmed and cut into 1″ lengths
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup onions, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup thinly sliced fresh shiitake mushrooms, or whatever fresh mushroom you can get
3/4-1 cup chicken broth or vegetable stock
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 pound boneless skinless chicken breast, trimmed and cut into 1/4″X1/2″X1″ slices
3 tablespoons garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 teaspoon Aleppo pepper flakes, or freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 pound penne pasta
6 ounces fresh chevre
1/3 cup fresh basil leaves cut chiffonade–into very thin strips–or roughly chopped
1/2-1 teaspoon lemon juice
salt to taste
whole basil leaves or sprigs for garnish
Bring a pot of water large enough to cook your pasta to a boil. Dunk the asparagus into it and when it turns brighter green, immediately remove it with a skimmer and drain it. Leave the water on to boil, and when it is time to cook your pasta, cook it in there. (Yes, I am saving water and time here, and hopefully adding some of those water soluble vitamins you lose by blanching your asparagus into the pasta.)
Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed, deep skillet or Dutch oven. Add the onions, and sprinkle with the salt. Cook, stirring, until the onions are a light golden brown.
Add the mushrooms, and cook, stirring, until the onions turn a deeper gold color and the mushrooms shrink and brown a bit themselves. Deglaze the pan with a little bit of the stock or broth–not all of it–you will need it later. Maybe a couple of tablespoons at most.
Toss the chicken with the flour until it is well coated. Add it to the pan with the mushrooms and onions and cook, stirring until it is mostly brown and white with very little pink showing. Add the garlic and the Aleppo pepper or black pepper, and cook, stirring, until there is no pink showing, but the chicken is not quite done.
Put the penne in the pasta water and cook until it is al dente. (Now the truth is, you can finish cooking the chicken before you add the pasta to the water if you don’t trust yourself to get the timing just right on having the pasta and chicken done and ready to go at the same time. The chicken can wait, but the pasta cannot.)
Deglaze the browned bits of flour off the bottom of the pan with most of the rest of the broth or stock–leave some behind for thinning the sauce if necessary–just a tablespoon or two should do it– by adding it bit by bit and scraping up the flour and chicken bits. Turn the heat down on the pan to a simmer and cook until the chicken is done and a thick sauce clings to the onion, mushroom and chicken pieces, with very little left in the pan.
Drain the pasta and add to the pan. Before stirring it in, add the asparagus pieces, the basil and the chevre.
Turn off the heat, and stir well–two wooden spoons help this process along–until the pasta is coated with the sauce, and everything is mixed together. If it is too thick and glumpy, add a bit of the reserved stock–a tablespoon or two should suffice and keep stirring. Add the lemon juice and the salt to taste and toss until well combined.
Serve in warmed bowls, and garnish with reserved whole basil leaves if you remember them, which I didn’t.
This dish will serve three to four adults and one hungry toddler easily. If you want, you can add more pasta, more chicken or more of everything to stretch the dish farther.
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