Erin and I don’t always agree on everything, food-wise. For example, my body requires a chili dog once or twice a year, at least. Erin won’t eat anything that even resembles a hot dog.
I always assumed gravy was one of the four food groups. Erin won’t touch the stuff.
When I think of peas, I think of black-eyed peas. When Erin thinks about peas, she thinks of those little green English peas – and neither of us want the other kind.
I want to make every meal into a production. I’m fairly sure that Erin could have cheese, chips, and salsa (and a microwave) and she’d be happy forever. (Disclaimer: She grew up in a gym. Nachos were a food group.)
So when I stumble on something that we both absolutely love, I pay attention – and I make it over and over. This is one of those recipes that we both love. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of dish you can have twice a week. Or, you could, depending on how much cream cheese sauce you’re comfortable with eating every day. I’ve been there, believe me. Since it only gets better the longer it sits, you’ll have plenty of chances to enjoy the leftovers.
Quick Chicken Penne with Spicy Bacon Ranch Alfredo
16 oz. penne pasta
1⁄2 lb bacon
1 lb boneless skinless chicken thighs
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 yellow onion
6 cloves garlic
2 cups milk
8 oz cream cheese
8 oz Pepper Jack cheese
1 chicken bouillon cube/1 tsp chicken bouillon powder
1 cup ranch dressing
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1⁄2 tsp basil
Dice your chicken thighs, (I usually shoot for half-inch pieces) then season with salt and pepper and set aside. Chop your bacon. (You can cook it whole if you want, I just think it’s easier this way. Same deal with the chicken.) Mince the onion and garlic, grate your cheese. If you’re using the chicken bouillon cube, go ahead and smash it. (If you do it inside a plastic bag, it keeps the powder from going everywhere.) I like to get everything else out, measured, and ready to go at this time, too – especially spices.
Preheat your oven to 350, and prepare a pan. You may want to give it a shot of non-stick spray, too.
Salt a big pot of water and set it on to boil. The rule I’ve always heard is that pasta water should taste like sea water, so don’t skimp on the salt. (No, it’s not to make the water boil faster. It’s to make the pasta taste better.)
At the same time, heat a skillet over medium heat. I use a big cast-iron pan for this, since it’s easy to clean, and bacon fat just makes it better. Toss in your bacon and cook it until it’s nice and crispy. Remember, it will continue to cook outside of the pan, so you don’t want it completely done. Set it aside and let the excess fat drain away.
Now, back to your pan. If you’re shocked by the amount of bacon fat, feel free to drain some off. You can even remove it all and use something less bacony, if you’d like. You’ll need a little fat/oil in the pan, though. Turn up the heat a bit to medium-high and toss in the chicken. It won’t take terribly long to cook, and you want each piece to build up a little bit of browning – that’s flavor, after all.
When the chicken’s done (feel free to bite into a piece to tell – pink in the center isn’t done for most people, for example), set it aside and let it drain, possibly in the same bowl as your bacon. Chicken thighs are super-forgiving to cook, and they’ll stay moist for much longer than breast meat, so you don’t have to obsess too much on this.
Now, it’s time to multi-task. Your pasta water should be boiling by now, so toss in the penne. It’ll probably need to cook for 7-8 minutes, but be sure to check the side of the box, just in case. Don’t forget to give it a stir every so often, just to encourage it to not stick to the bottom of the pot.
At the same time, get another decently-sized pot, set it over medium heat, and add the butter. When it gets nice and melted, it’s time to build your faux-alfredo (fauxfredo?) sauce. Toss in the onion, and let it cook for a few minutes. You want it nice and soft and translucent. After 3-4 minutes, add your garlic. Stir this mixture constantly to keep the garlic from burning. It should only need to cook for about a minute. You’ll know it’s done because the garlic will start to smell all…garlicky.
Now, add your milk. Whisk like crazy while you do so, just to help it combine. Add the chicken boullion powder and the cream cheese. Stir until the cream cheese melts, and the entire concoction gets smooth.
Is your pasta done? Be sure and keep an eye on that clock, we don’t want it to over cook. When it’s finished cooking, go ahead and drain it into a colander and set it aside. Don’t rinse it, though. We want some of that starchy water to help tighten up our sauce. Just let it sit and drain.
Back to the sauce! Add the ranch dressing and the rest of your seasonings. Stir until it’s smooth, and let it come to a boil. It shouldn’t take too long to see some bubbles. While you’re waiting, taste the sauce. It should taste pretty awesome at this point, but feel free to adjust the salt and pepper level, or increase the heat. Just keep in mind, the pasta’s coming, and that will add some salt to your mix.
When the sauce begins to bubble, that means it’s time to finish this up and get it in the oven. Drop the heat to low and add your cheese; there should be plenty of heat to melt it. Once it’s smooth, add the bacon and the chicken back in and stir to combine. Once that’s done, add in the pasta and give it another few stirs to bring everything together.
Transfer the mix to your baking dish, and pop it in the oven to bake. 20 to 25 minutes should make sure everything’s nice and warm and blended. You could even stick it under the broiler for a couple of minutes, if you’d like to see more of that nice browning on top.
Once it’s done, pull it out and let it sit for 5-10 minutes before you dig in. This will probably be the hardest part. Serve it with a simple salad and some bread, and you’ve got a meal. Or, just eat it straight from the pan. Whatever you do, don’t throw out the leftovers – they only get better as time goes by.
Ultimately, remember that this is cooking, not baking. Feel free to experiment and adjust until you make something that you love as much as we love this.