Like many of you, I'm really busy with school, work, bills, errands, and life in general. More often than not, when it comes to food, I'll go for something easy (and likely terrible for me). But I love to cook - I have fond memories of my grandmother, aunt, and mother cooking, and of big, shared family meals. And I actually enjoy healthy, fresh foods prepared at home -I just don't make time to cook as often as I should.
So sometimes I am left with the uncontrollable urge to go on a kitchen adventure. These usually don't involve recipes, just me rifling through the fridge and pantry, and maybe making a stop at the store for a few items, just to see what I can come up with.
Last night, I was craving fresh vegetables and something filling that wouldn't leave me feeling guilty for stuffing myself with unhealthy things. I was also in the mood for Italian flavors, but didn't want to go the pasta and sauce route. I stopped at the local grocery store to see what vegetables and herbs were available, as it's always best to get the veggies fresh and use them within a day or two. They had a display of gorgeous red and yellow bell peppers and super-fresh zucchini and squash, so those went in the basket. I was hoping for fresh basil, but alas no such luck; however, my fresh herb craving was appeased by a bunch of perky-looking flat-leaf parsley. Into the basket with that as well. I threw in some grape tomatoes on the way out, and headed home. You can see my complete ingredient list here:
To do what I did you'll need:
- 4 cups whole-grain rice (I used two 2-cup boil-in-bags)
- 6 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (divided into 3, 2 Tablespoon portions)
- 1 Medium zucchini
- 1 Medium yellow squash
- 1 Large red bell pepper
- 1 Large yellow bell pepper
- 2-4 Teaspoons garlic, diced (to taste)
- 1/2 (Half) Medium onion
- 1 Pint fresh grape tomatoes
- 1 Big handful fresh, Italian flat leaf parsley (coarsely chopped and without stems)
- 2 Tablespoon's Mrs. Dash (can be substituted with Italian Seasoning)
- 2 Tablespoons dried basil
- Salt and Pepper to taste
4 Baked Chicken Breasts with Italian Seasoning (see recipe below)
I always find it easiest to gather all my ingredients, pots, pans, and utensils first. That way I can wash anything I need and have everything right at hand. This recipe only required one big frying pan, one big pot, and one long-handled spoon for stirring and serving. I usually chop all my veggies first as well, so they can go in at just the right moment. For this recipe I used bite-sized chunks of each vegetable for a rustic look and lots of flavor in each bite.
For the rice, just follow the instructions on the box, and if it gets ready first, simply set it aside until you're ready to use it. Add 2 Tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil to your pan and heat to Medium-low. Add zucchini and squash, season with salt, pepper, half the basil, and half the Mrs. Dash; stir to coat all the pieces. Now, be patient for a few minutes and don't stir them (about 4 - 5 minutes); they should be just getting tender and have a little brown on the bottoms. Add the yellow and red bell peppers as well as the onion. I would recommend adding the tomatoes now as well, although I ended up adding them a bit late. Add 2 more Tablespoons of olive oil, a little more salt and pepper to taste, and the rest of the basil and Mrs. Dash: stir to coat, and be patient again for a few more minutes. You want your vegetables to be tender, but not too soft so they retain the best of their nutrients, flavor, and texture. Once your veggies have reached your desired tenderness, throw in all of the garlic and stir the whole mixture so each bit will be infused with lovely, garlicky goodness. Cook that until you can smell the garlic (usually less than a minute or so), and turn off the heat.
Now you should have tender, seasoned vegetables that have created a little bit of their own sauce. Pour the mixture over your waiting rice and gently fold all the ingredients together. Add your handful of Italian Flat-leaf parsley, and fold it in.
Now comes the hardest part. Your kitchen is going to be full of tempting aromas, and your lovely dish LOOKS ready - but it's not. So grab a book, or turn on the t.v. - anything to keep you out of the kitchen. Put a lid on your pot, make sure the heat is off, and leave your rice and veggie mixture to sit for at least 30 minutes! If you can stand to wait until the next day, even better (of course, if you're going to do that, make sure to put your dish in the refrigerator once it cools). This will give all those fresh flavors a chance to mingle with each other in the most delicious way, and - I promise - it will be worth the wait.
I served mine with Baked Chicken Breasts with Italian Seasoning (see recipe below); I cut each breast into bite-sized medallions, but you can serve yours whole or in any presentation you like. You'll end up with more veggie and rice mixture than will go with the four chicken breasts, so save the leftovers for a healthy lunch the next day, or try some of my additional ideas (below).
Don't just follow my recipe - the whole point of a kitchen adventure is to do something a little different, or to try something new. So here are some ideas I'd like to try when I make this in the future:
- Add pignoli
- Add milled flax seed for additional Omega-3
- Add pancetta
- Use sweet or hot Italian sausage instead of chicken breasts
- Add crushed red peppers
- Add some tomato sauce
- Top with freshly-grated Parmagianno Reggianno, Pecorino Romano, Provolone Piccante, or your favorite hard, Italian cheese. Do yourself a favor if you go this route, and get the REAL stuff imported from Italy. It's easy to find these on the internet these days and have them delivered right to your door.
- Add sun-dried tomatoes
- Give it a puttanesca feel by adding olives
- Use shrimp or other fish instead of chicken
- Add roasted garlic
- Substitute rice with orzo or couscous
You can even use this rice and veggie mixture to make other great meals: Try stuffing it into tomatoes, green peppers, or large Portabella caps; top it with a little cheese and bake until brown on top. Or pack the leftover mixture into pitas or calzones. If you're having guests, try wrapping some of this mixture in pieces of proscuitto (like little burritos or stuffed grape leaves); hold them closed with toothpicks, and you've got easy, delicious finger foods.
Baked Chicken Breasts with Italian Seasoning
- 4 Medium Chicken Breasts
- Italian Seasoning to taste
- Salt and Pepper to taste
- Drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil for each (approximately 1/2 Tablespoon)
Pre-heat the oven to 325 degrees. Make an envelope or pocket out of aluminum foil for each chicken breast, drizzle each with olive oil, sprinkle liberally with Italian Seasoning, Salt, and Pepper (for fresher flavor use a small bunch of fresh basil, oregano, savory, and thyme in each foil pocket). You could even add sun-dried tomatoes to the pocket for even more flavor layers. Seal each foil pocket. Place them on a cookie sheet, and bake for 25-35 minutes depending on their size. You can feel that they're done by touching them (with a CLEAN finger), and seeing if the meat is firm; if it is still soft, even in the middle, you'll be able to feel it with some practice. If you need to, get a meat thermometer and test the middle of each chicken breast. They should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees at their thickest part. Et Voila! That's it, juicy, flavorful, and healthy chicken breast. Feel free to experiment with different seasonings to make it your favorite!
This dish turned out so well, I just had to share it with the world. My roommates ate it until they couldn't sit up anymore - I'm not exaggerating. I'm sure you'll love the fresh, light flavors, and this is a recipe that will keep you feeling full without adding on the extra pounds. So enjoy!
Do you have stories about your kitchen adventures, or great ideas to add to this recipe? Let me know. Leave your questions, comments, or requests for blogs in the comment section below. And keep reading to see more Kitchen Adventures, home decor advice, and ideas for better living.