20 July 2008

Pasta for a warm summer's night

A good hot summer's night, and you've already done the burger and steak options earlier in the week. You need a quick meal to share with friends on the deck. I've got just the thing.

I'm a fan of pasta for friendly dinners because the majority of the prep can be done well in advance, leaving you free to sit with your friends and enjoy the evening along with them. Throw together the ingredients and dinner's ready in under 20 minutes. I also just love that it's a homey, simple base for a dish, and allows any chef to feed a large group for not a lot of money.

And summer shouldn't preclude a nice pasta-based meal, so here's a little something easy to assemble.

I should note that one of our guests for the meal I just did with this dish was a vegetarian. Since the rest of us still wanted some animal protein, I did the chicken breasts on the side, which ended up working out quite well. I'll pretend you're adding them in to the dish, but feel free to omit them or do them as a side dish, sliced and presented on a plate with some lemon slices or herbs.


600g boneless/skinless chicken breast (optional)

1 green or yellow zuchini, sliced length-wise into four long strips
1 medium eggplant, peeled and sliced into 1/2" thick rounds
2 portabello mushrooms, stems removed, washed and dried
2 medium sweet red peppers, halved, stems/seeds removed
1 1/2 cups fresh spinach or arugula, washed and patted dry
1 lemon

1/2 cup olive oil
1 tsp dried basil, oregano, or marjoram (or a combination of all 3)
black pepper
sea salt

1 small package goat cheese (about 250g)
fresh herbs : basil, rosemary, oregano, parsley, whatever you want!
3 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
2 Tbsp olive oil

1 package whole wheat or multigrain spaghetti or other long noodle of your choice

Preheat your grill, with all burners on medium.

Mix the oil, dried herb(s) and black pepper in a glass bowl or measuring cup.

Brush the chicken breasts sparingly with oil, place on grill. Sprinkle with juice from half of the lemon.

Put a big pot of water on the stove, with a little salt, and set to boil.

Assuming your chicken has had at least a 5 minute head start, you can now cook the veggies. Brush each of the veggies (cut as described above) generously with the oil, and place on the grill.

Let things cook for about 10 minutes, on medium low heat. Keep an eye out that nothing burns. If there are flare ups, move items away from flames.

Turn everything over. If the veggies are getting overly cooked, use the upper rack as a storage spot for them, or turn off one burner and put them over to that side. The peppers will take the longest to cook, followed by the eggplant, mushrooms, and the zucchini.

After another 8 or 9 minutes, check the chicken. It should be close to being done. If not, pile the veggies on one side of the grill and turn it right off. Keep cooking the chicken 'til it's done, but not dry or charred.

At the same time, throw your pasta into the boiling water, and bring back to a boil. Allow to cook for 7 or 8 minutes, or if using fresh, about 2 or 3 minutes. You want it to still have firmness, ie, be al dente.

Drain pasta of water, retaining a bit of the water on the side, and return to pot. Immediately dump in the garlic, chopped herbs, 2 Tbsp oil, and goat cheese, and squeeze in the juice of the remaining half of the lemon. Mix, so that the noodles are covered. You might need to drizzle in little of the pasta water, and mix it with your hands, but eventually the goat cheese will melt and make a sort of creamy pasta. Cover with lid to keep warm, but don't place over any heat.

Working quickly, bring your chicken and veggies in off the grill, and slice them up into thin pieces. Take half of the red peppers and half of the eggplant, and gently mix them into your pasta along with the spinach.

Place the pasta in a large serving dish, and layer on the rest of the eggplant, then the zucchini, the mushroom, and finally the red pepper (points awarded for artistic arrangements of the peppers!). Add the chicken, sliced thinly, around the outside of the dish.

Serve with fresh grated romano or parmesan cheese.

Simple, fresh, versatile, and lovely with any bottle of wine.

Serves 4 to 6.

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