Sunday, August 25, 2013

Dan's blackened-chicken pasta salad.

Blackened-chicken pasta salad with honey mustard dressing. © Ryan Schierling
When you move away from things you love, you will find there are some very necessary instances where you'll attempt to recreate them as best you can. Sometimes it's trying to find a feeling, a recollection, or a solid sense of place. The intangibles are always the most onerous to rediscover. Thankfully, when it comes to reviving a food-related impression, it's not terribly difficult to do. Olfactory and taste perceptions bring back memories in powerful ways that other senses seem to clumsily mishandle with feeling and emotion. My most-cherished meals are wrapped with importance and warm remembrance – a single bite will bring forth a flood of memory and stories to retell. 

This simple blackened-chicken pasta salad with rotini, black olives, tomatoes and honey mustard dressing is not my food memory – it is the fond reminiscence of a lifelong friend who has carried it with him and shared it with his friends and family. I am thankful to be a part of that group, and it has been a part of our wee suburban cabin family collection for a while now.

Dan shared this dish with me when we were living at Ghetto Melrose in Seattle. He's been making it since he moved from North Carolina to Kansas, to Washington state and then back to Kansas. Originally a favored menu item at the now-defunct Harrison's Bar & Grill in Cary, North Carolina, not much has changed in his (and our) preparation. 

It's easy to over-think things when they're uncomplicated. Over the years, I've entertained thoughts to fancy-up the honey mustard dressing, to use a different pasta altogether, or to change the chicken presentation, but it's just not necessary. My only exceptions currently are minor aesthetics – to use plain rotini instead of tri-color (a neutral canvas), sliced cherry tomatoes instead of a chopped tomato (to match the size and shape of the sliced black olives), and to brine the chicken breasts for a few hours before seasoning and cooking them in a cast-iron skillet (all chicken in this household gets brined, period). 

When all is said and done, the flavors and textures will be exactly what I know them to be – satisfyingly rich, tangy, sweet and salty – and sure enough, it immdediately brings me back to that shared Ghetto Melrose flat with the very first bite. For Dan, I'm betting it takes him straight back to Harrison's Bar & Grill, and the good times spent there.

Blackened Chicken Pasta Salad (adapted from Dan Ferrell)

2 boneless chicken breasts, brined
Blackened seasoning
1 16-ounce package dry rotini (or fusilli) pasta
1 14.5-ounce can large black olives, drained and sliced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced

Honey mustard dressing
     1 cup real mayonnaise
     3/4 cup yellow mustard
     1/2 cup honey
     1 tablespoon lemon juice (about 1 large lemon)
     Black pepper, to taste

Crispy bacon bits (optional)

The chicken - We don't eat a lot of chicken, really, but when we do prepare it, it is always brined before cooking. Whether you're cooking a whole, spatchcocked chicken on the grill or just a couple of chicken breasts in a stovetop skillet, brining results in a juicier, more flavorful chicken. For 2 boneless chicken breasts, I dissolve 1/4 cup kosher salt and 1/4 cup sugar in 6 cups of water. Submerge the chicken, cover, and refrigerate for at least two hours. Remove the chicken, rinse and pat dry. Season chicken thoroughly with blackened seasoning and cook in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, flipping chicken once, until an internal temperature of 160-degrees is reached. Remove the chicken, place on a plate and tent with foil. When ready to serve, slice into 1/4" thick pieces. 

The pasta - If you want a history lesson on pasta shapes, the Italian government and how it regulates pasta by ingredients, there's a site for you somewhere out there. There's not much difference to the eye when it comes to rotini and fusilli. They both "hold" the honey mustard well in this application. Cook pasta in salted, boiling water until al dente, drain, rinse with cool water. 

Honey mustard dressing - In a medium mixing bowl, whisk mayonnaise, mustard, honey, and lemon juice. Mix until thoroughly incorporated. Season to taste with freshly-ground black pepper. 

Slice black olives and cherry tomatoes into rounds. Put pasta into individual bowls, add olives and tomatoes, drizzle with honey mustard dressing. Place sliced chicken breast on top, spoon a little more dressing over it, season to taste with freshly-ground black pepper and top with crumbled crispy bacon (optional).

Blackened Chicken Pasta Salad (by Dan Ferrell, as originally published in The Emporia Gazette)

Boneless chicken breasts
Tri-colored rotini pasta
Black olives
Honey Mustard Dressing
Crushed bacon (optional)

The chicken - The original recipe calls for ‘Blackened seasoning’ on the chicken, however you can actually use just about any seasonings you want. Give the chicken an even spread of seasonings and then place it on a grill or skillet and cook thoroughly. When the chicken is done, let it cool a bit and then cut it up into bite size pieces.

The pasta - Cook pasta as you would any other pasta. When finished, place in a strainer and strain under cold water until the pasta is cold. (The chicken will be the only warm part of this recipe.)

Honey mustard dressing - First and foremost, make your own! Trust me, it is ten times better than anything you will buy at the grocery store. There are numerous ways of making honey mustard dressing. This is just one method. In a medium bowl place 1 cup of mayonnaise, 3/4 cup mustard, 1/2 cup honey and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Mix all of these ingredients until they are blended thoroughly. Season with some freshly-ground pepper. NOTE: These portions may vary so take a taste test and make any adjustments you desire.

Once all of that is done, cut up your olives and tomatoes. Place pasta in a bowl, add the chicken, olives and tomatoes, then pour some honey mustard on top. To finish it up sprinkle some fresh bacon bits on top.

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