The two large casseroles, plucked for a song from an antique store one day, were begging for some new use. I’d been in the habit of baking boneless chicken breasts in various Indian simmer sauces I’d purchase in the ethnic food aisles of local supermarkets. I’d add chickpeas, and at the end, I’d toss in a couple of handfuls of frozen green peas. When served on a bed of curried cous cous, spiked with yellow raisins, and cumin and coriander seeds, this made for a tasty and simple Indian meal.
Using this technique as a starting point, I mulled over possibilities. It occurred to me, after a few days, that I might do something with Italian flavors, and Chicken Antipasto was born. Because I then lived in New York’s lower Hudson Valley, an area where Italian specialty markets are ubiquitous, I was able to easily purchase a variety of items one would typically find on an antipasto platter: marinated artichoke hearts and mushrooms, two jars of roasted sweet peppers, cherry peppers stuffed with prosciutto, salami, and provolone. I also bought several hot and sweet sausage links.
I was about to do something I try never to do. That is, I was going to serve the initial results of a newly conceived recipe to guests. Not just any guests mind you, but a group of poets that included several of my mentors, Dan Masterson, John Allman, and Michael Waters. Also attending would be the poets Mihaela Moscaliuc, Suzanne Cleary, and Gerald McCarthy. It was to be a dinner celebrating Waters’ reading at St. Thomas Aquinas College earlier that day.
The night before, I prepared my signature version of spaghetti sauce; nothing special, just canned plum tomatoes, tomato puree and crushed tomatoes, tomato paste and a large splash of a good red Côtes du Rhône added to sautéed garlic and sweet onions. I typically add whatever fresh or dried herbs I have available: basil, rosemary, and/or oregano, a bay leaf or two. The next morning I set the oven to 375 degrees, rinsed ten chicken breasts under cold water, and divided them into the twin casseroles. I browned the sausage links in a frying pan for flavor and color, and added these as well. Then in went the antipasto ingredients, and I covered the lot with the red sauce. I figured that I should bake it for about an hour and a half to allow for complete cooking of the chicken and for the various flavors to fully mingle.
Within a half an hour, the aroma issuing from the kitchen enraptured me. The timing was perfect because, when I removed a breast and cut into it, its tender juiciness was obvious, and when I tasted a bite, dredged in the sauce, I knew I had created a dish worthy of this, or any, special occasion.
It was a lovely night, Chicken Antipasto served over radiatore and complimented with bottles of the Côtes du Rhône. It was so good, in fact, that I brought leftovers to share with my boss at work the next day. You may have heard of her, Toni Morrison. Yeah, she liked it, too!
5-6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
hot and sweet Italian sausage links
two quarts of homemade spaghetti sauce (or two jars of a high quality jarred sauce)
six stuffed cherry peppers (available at Italian specialty stores or at many good grocery stores)
1 jar of marinated mushrooms
2 jars of marinated artichoke hearts
1 jar of roasted peppers (or roast some yourself in season)
half a cup of good red wine
radiatore, fusilli, campanelle or any pasta shape that holds sauce well
high-quality grated parmesan or romano cheese
Place chicken breasts in a deep casserole. In a pan, fry the sausages. Add cooked sausages to the casserole and deglaze pan with a bit of red wine. Add this to the casserole, along with cherry peppers, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, and roasted peppers. You may also add pitted olives or any other antipasto items you like. Cover with the spaghetti sauce, cover the casserole with its lid, and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for about an hour and fifteen minutes or until the thickest chicken breast has achieved an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Let dish sit for at least fifteen minutes. Serve over pasta, sprinkled with grated cheese. Good red wine and a fresh garden salad complete the meal. This dish can be made a day or two ahead of time and reheated in the oven.
Now, while it’s cooking, enjoy these great poems from the November, 2012 Congeries by the wonderful poet’s poet, Kurt Brown.