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~ Roast-Chicken Caprese-Panzanella Pasta-Salad ~

IMG_3432Here in the Northeastern part of the United States, the Memorial Day weekend is the official unofficial kick off to the Summer season.  Gardeners fertilize their soil and plant their seeds while barbeque grillers iron their aprons and sharpen their knives.  Public swimming pools and beaches open, and fishermen put their boats in the water.  The young, the old and everybody in between is ready to set up their lawn chairs and move outdoors for a few months.  As of yesterday afternoon, I have switched gears.  I am officially in Summer meals mode, meaning:

During the Summer, what I enjoy most is the variety of just-picked produce that becomes available via my local farmers markets, as well the goodies our own backyard gardens, fruit trees and berry bushes gift us with.  Being a lover of all things fresh (except for eggplant and kale), I do a good job of eating healthy all year long, in an inconspicuous sort of way, so, eating extra-healthy in the Summer is not even a conscious decision on my part -- it just happens. Meat, poultry or fish almost always make a daily appearance on my table in some form (I am not a vegetarian and have no interest in that lifestyle), but, in my kitchen during the Summer, on a daily basis, proteins play second fiddle to whatever fresh vegetables I have in my hands.

Meet one of my favorite kick-off-the-Summer eat-outside meals: 

IMG_3416Panzanella is a "poor" salad that has gotten "rich" over time!

A bit about panzanella salad:  Panzanella is a  Summer salad famous throughout Italy, but most notably in the region of Tuscany which is situated in the center of the Italian pennisula. Panzanella is a bread-based, poor (peasant) "when times are tough" salad made out of soaked pieces of stale rustic bread, chunks of sun-ripened tomatoes, onion and torn basil leaves dressed in a balsamic or red wine olive-oil based vinaigrette then seasoned with sea salt and black pepper. Traditional panzanella salad contains no lettuce, and, up until the 20th century it was made with onions and no tomatoes.  As with many dishes, panzanella salad became "richer" in the years after WWII because people could afford to add other ingredients like: cooked poultry or seafood, fried pancetta, cheeses, and, various fresh or marinated vegetables.

Caprese is a "poor" salad that makes everything taste "rich":

caprese sandwich, pizza caprese, caprese panzanella!

A bit about caprese (kuh-pray-zay):  Caprese is an Italian Summer salad that takes its name from the island of Capri in the gulf of Naples.  "The salad of Capri" is a perfect mix of flavor and texture, consisting simply of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil.  It gets drizzled with fruity olive oil and seasoned with freshly ground sea salt and black pepper, although it is not unusual to see versions drizzled with red wine or balsamic vinaigrette or a balsamic reduction.  Unlike other Italian salads it is served as an antipasto (appetizer), not a contorno (side-dish). The word "caprese" is also an adjective used to describe foods containing its components: caprese salad, caprese sandwich, pizza caprese, etc..  It doesn't take much imagination to understand why it lends itself so well to a "rich" caprese version of the "poor" panzanella salad.

IMG_3249The only thing better than a panzanella salad or caprese salad is:  caprese-panzanella salad!

Adding roasted chicken or steamed shrimp along with some cooked fork-friendly pasta turns these Italian classics into a main-course meal. Orecchiette or "little ears" are my first choice because each one catches the vinaigrette along with little bits of the ingredients too -- it is also about the same size as the grape tomatoes, ciliegine (small grape-sized mozzarella balls) and nicoise or kalamata olives.

Part One (Optional):  The Roast Chicken & The Pasta

IMG_3227Even though I hope you won't, feel free to make just a caprese-style panzanella salad by skipping the chicken and the pasta.  Just remember, if you do, you'll need to add less of the red wine or balsamic vinaigrette at tossing time.  I roast a chicken or two almost every week, so, I almost always have roasted chicken and roasted chicken breasts on hand in my refrigerator.

~ Step 1.  Using a chef's knife, cube

IMG_33381 1/2  large chicken breasts

into 3/4" bite-sized pieces.  One and one-half chicken breasts will yield 2 1/2-3 cups of cubed chicken, which is what you'll need for this recipe.  I like my chicken cubed, but, for a more rustic presentation, feel free to tear it into bite-sized pieces.  Place chicken in a small bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside while cooking the orecchiette pasta as directed below:

IMG_3263~ Step 2.  In an 8-quart stockpot bring 5 quarts of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon sea salt. Gradually sprinkle in 12-ounces orecchiette, adjust heat to a steady simmer and cook until al dente, about 8-9 minutes, stirring constantly during the first minute of cooking to keep the pasta from sticking together.

Drain and rinse under cold water, using your fingers to stir and separate the "little ears" and IMG_3265insure it is cooled to below room temperature.

IMG_3272~ Step 3. Transfer orecchiette to a 12 1/2" x 8 3/4" baking pan that has been lined with parchment paper.  Set aside to "dry" (meaning free from moisture" not "dry out"), about 30-45 minutes.  Loosely cover with plastic wrap.  While pasta is drying, prep the croutons according to the following directions:

Part Two:  The Bread & the Croutons

6a0120a8551282970b0147e15be50d970bA bit about the bread for panzanella salad:  Any type of crusty, firm-textured rustic or baguette shaped loaf will work.  It can be plain or flavored, but it must be stale (2-4 days old kind of hard and stale). The three loaves pictured here are: a three-cheese semolina bread (front); a sourdough baguette (top), and; a loaf of ciabatta (back). Traditionally, the stale, hard bread is torn into pieces and left to marinate in the salad until it IMG_2004absorbs the liquids and softens -- this is not my favorite way to eat this salad.  Philistines like me (people insensitive to intellectual and artistic values), make croutons out of our stale bread for a little crunch and mush-free texture.  In my case, I make them for a blast of flavor, as, I make my croutons out of ~ My Rosemary & Cracked Black Pepper Focaccia ~.  There is asiago cheese in this bread too. You can get the recipe by clicking on the Related Article link below.

IMG_3281~ Step 1.  Choose bread.  No matter what your choice, you will need:

1  pound, firm-textured, rustic bread, cut into 3/4"-1" pieces

8  ounces salted butter (2 sticks)

IMG_3287In a 12" nonstick skillet, melt butter over low heat.

IMG_3297 IMG_3290Step 2. Add the bread to the skillet, and adjust heat to medium-high.  Using a large nonstick spoon, working gently at first, toss bread constantly, until golden brown, about 8-10 minutes. Aside from a golden brown residue, bottom of pan will be dry.

IMG_3299Turn the heat off and allow croutons to cool in the pan, about 30 minutes, to allow carryover heat to continue to crisp them.  

IMG_3308Line a second baking pan with 3-4 layers of paper towels, transfer croutons to pan and spread them in a single layer.  Set aside to cool completely, about 45-60 minutes.

Part Three: The Red Wine & Splash of Balsamic Vinaigrette

IMG_3342I make red wine vinaigrette in the Summer months and balsamic in the Winter. Why?  In the Winter, really good tomatoes are hard to find, so I roast the best ones ones available. The balsamic vinaigrette complements the roasted tomatoes better and vice versa.

1  cup red wine vinegar + 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/2  cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2  cup sugar

2  tablespoons Dijon mustard, to emulsify the vinaigrette, optional (Note:  I always add it.)

~ Step 1.  In a 2-cup container add & shake all ingredients vigorously.

Part Four:  The Rest of the Story -- All the Right Stuff

IMG_33511 1/2 roasted chicken breasts, cubed as directed above, about 2 1/2-3 cups

12  ounces orecchiette, cooked, drained and cooled as directed, about 6 cups

1  pound loaf firm-textured, rustic bread croutons, prepared as directed, about 6 cups

2  cups well-drained small, grape-sized ciliegine  mozzarella balls

2  cups halved grape tomatoes

1  cup 1/2" diced red onion

1  cup well-drained nicoise or kalamata olives

1  cup chiffonade of fresh basil leaves

2  cups red wine or balsamic vinaigrette, prepared as directed above

1/2-3/4  cup finely-grated asiago or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, to taste (Note:  I use asiago because there is asiago cheese in my focaccia.)

freshly-ground sea salt and peppercorn blend, for topping each portion

a sprig of fresh basil, for garnishing each portion

IMG_3362 IMG_3364 IMG_3369 IMG_3399

                            ~ Steps 1, 2, 3 & 4.  In a very large bowl, place the chicken, pasta, tomatoes, onion, olives and basil.  Season generously with freshly-ground peppercorn blend.  Add 1 1/2 cups of the vinaigrette.  Using a pair of salad servers, toss to thoroughly combine.  Set aside for 5 minutes, retossing 3-4 times during this wait.  Add the croutons and the Parmigiano-Reggianno cheese, toss again to thoroughly combine.  Add the remaining 1/2 cup of vinaigrette and set salad aside for 10-15 more minutes, retossing frequently until croutons have reached a texture to your liking.

Portion and serve at room temperature garnished w/freshly ground sea salt, peppercorn blend & a sprig of fresh basil:

IMG_3408This is my idea of a mouthful of Summer season happiness:

IMG_3459Roast-Chicken, Caprese Panzanella Pasta Salad:  Recipe yields 8 main-course salads.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; 8-quart stockpot; colander; 2, 12 1/2" x 8 3/4" baking pans; parchment paper; plastic wrap; serrated bread knife; 12" skillet, preferably nonstick; large nonstick spoon; paper towels; 2-cup food storage container w/tight-fitting lid and pourer top; salad servers 

6a0120a8551282970b01901c7381cf970bCook's Note:  Believe it or not, a little bit of kitchen science goes into a well-made pasta salad.  Check out my recipe for ~ Shrimp & Pasta Salad w/Lemony Garlic Dressing + (Three Tips for Properly Preparing Pasta Salad too!) ~ in Categories 2, 10, 14, 15 or 17!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary & Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)


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