Here’s an axiom that’s maybe only a little bit true: everything “tastes like chicken.” Actually, almost nothing tastes like chicken... including a lot of the chicken you’ve eaten in your life. The taste of chicken is something exceptional when done right.
I first learned this the expensive way. At an anniversary dinner some years back, as part of a big fancy tasting menu, I was served sous-vide chicken breast over some sort of wilted green and a dollop of mashed root vegetable. Fuckin’ chicken breast? I thought, as the many dozens of waitstaff executed a carefully choreographed, elaborate ritual whereby a dinner plate was placed on the table in front of me. You know where this is going: the chicken tasted like chicken, but, like, a lot, in the way that a garden fresh tomato tastes like a tomato, only more so. Like the ultimate realization of the tomato idea. That was the sous-vide chicken breast. Chicken-y, but powerfully, ecstatically so.
I like almost all chicken, from the sous-vide chicken breast of fancy pants gourmands, all the way to the “fried” “chicken” “fingers” of, literally, a 7-Eleven. But that doesn’t mean all chicken is created equal. Fuck no. There’s chicken, and then there’s Chicken.
I’m not going to tell you, here, to go out and buy yourself a sous-vide machine (or whatever). I am going to advocate for chicken preparations that pack that same kind of Big Bold Chicken-ness, so that you can know the experience of eating chicken for reasons beyond that it is wholesome and blandly inoffensive, like the Simon & Garfunkel of animal proteins.
Chicken rigatoni—known to its true fans as “Chicken Riggies”—is such a preparation. It’s another unexpected culinary delight of upstate New York. The first time I tasted Chicken Riggies I had that same whoa that is chicken-y-ass chicken experience, only it cost a mere fraction of the sous-vide stuff and required no hyper-specific space-age kitchen gadgets. I’ve had it since, and it’s become obvious there’s no agreed upon standard Chicken Riggies, which is fine. This one, though—the one we’re about to make—is the Big Chicken Shoryuken. The Chickenpocalypse. The Chickening. Let’s do it.
Here’s your shopping list: a pound of rigatoni; a package of boneless, skinless chicken thighs; some cherry peppers; some tomato paste; some heavy cream; some chicken stock; a big yellow onion; some garlic; some butter; some all-purpose flour.
Some of this stuff you’ve already got—an ancient can of tomato paste in the pantry, a mostly-full bag of all-purpose flour from that time you made pancakes nine years ago, 74 mostly-whole heads of garlic from the last 74 trips you made to the grocery store. Maybe some butter? Maybe some homemade chicken stock? Yes? If you’ve gotta use the store-bought stuff, make sure it’s low- or no-sodium.
The process here is pretty straightforward: we’re gonna cook some chicken, then we’re gonna make a really chicken-forward sauce that starts with a chicken-y roux, then we’re gonna add the chicken and the chicken sauce to some cooked rigatoni. For the sake of timing, go ahead and get a big pot of salty water going over high heat. Later we’ll use this for cooking rigatoni.
It’s generally a good idea to do the annoying, tedious chopping of vegetables right here at the outset: finely chop a couple cloves of garlic, finely chop half that big yellow onion, and chop a handful of cherry peppers into strips. Dump all this stuff together into a bowl, just to get it out of the way for a few minutes.
For the chicken, we’re gonna use boneless skinless thighs. We could use breasts—most recipes call for breasts—but then we’d be scaling back the Chicken Avalanche, and that would be weak. Get yourself, say, six or eight boneless skinless chicken thighs, unpack them, pat them dry with a paper towel, and lay them out on a cutting board. What we’ve gotta do is cut them into roughly uniform strips or cubes or chunks. Cutting raw chicken is a fucking nightmare—it’s gross and slimy and the chicken squirms and resists, and then you’ve got hands and a knife and a cutting board that are all covered in salmonella. It must be done! If we cut the chicken after cooking, we’re gonna lose a lot of chicken juice along the way, and we need every last drop of it.
Use a very sharp chef’s knife to cut your raw chicken thighs into strips or chunks. Think fajita-sized, here, although this isn’t very important. What you want are bite-sized chunks of chicken, whatever damn shape you happen to prefer.
Haul out whatever big, sturdy, deep pan you have for sautéing, put it over medium heat, and drop a pad of butter and a glug of olive oil down in there. Why use both? Well, not because oil will raise the smoke point of butter. What kind of baloney science is that? Has anyone ever seen this shit work? Hell no. It’s the particles in butter that cause it to smoke, and those particles are still there after you add the oil, dummy. No, we’re using both, here, because butter is good, and also olive oil is good.
Once the butter has melted, drop all your vegetable action into the pan. Drop a pinch or two of salt in there, and use a wooden spoon or rubber spatula or, god help you, a fireplace poker to move this stuff around until the onion is starting to turn translucent. Now, drop your chopped chicken into the fat and vegetable mixture. Two things are now happening: the chicken is cooking (duh, I mean what the fuck did you think was going on with the chicken), and the chicken is adding good ol’ schmaltz to your oil and butter mixture.
If you were using chicken breasts, you’d have to be very careful to pull the chicken off the heat before it was fully cooked, because white meat chicken turns into shoe leather once it’s overcooked, and this recipe will put your chicken chunks through another application of heat before all is said and done. But! Since we are using thighs, and since thighs will forgive all but the worst, most catastrophic overcooking, we can let the chunks go all the way up to doneness without a care in the world. Once the chicken is cooked, use a slotted spoon to pull the chicken and all the vegetable stuff out of the pan and into a bowl, leaving behind all the fat.
This is good, chicken-y flavored fat, and you should have a lot of it left in the pan. You want enough to make a pretty good roux, which, in this case, means several tablespoons. If you’ve gotta add another hearty glug of oil and another pad of butter, man, you really can’t do anything right. What the hell. Fine, just do it. I’ll look away.
Roux-making is simple: lower the heat some, and use a whisk or fork—or, god help you, a fireplace poker—to stir maybe up to a half cup of flour into the fat, maybe a tablespoon at a time. Keep going until the mixture is a smooth brown-ish paste, and then keep going some more until it’s deeper brown and has lost all of that raw cereal aroma.
OK. You’ve got a big pan over medium-low heat, and in this pan you’ve got a brown mixture roughly the consistency of peanut-butter, and it’s deep brown and smells good. Now, little by little, add chicken stock to the pan. Here’s what’s gonna happen: as with bechamel-making, the first dose of stock will cause the roux to seize up and become a terrifying, curdled, cement-like blob. Don’t freak out. Keep stirring, and keep adding splashes of stock, and eventually, in short order, your roux-turned-cement will start reverting back to a smooth mud. Everything is fine! It’s fine.
While it’s still fairly thick, stir in a few tablespoons of tomato paste. This will turn your roux-mud back into a peanut-butter type thing, so keep stirring in chicken stock, little by little, until you’ve got something the texture and consistency of gravy, only reddish. Awesome. Let this simmer for a few minutes over low-ish heat while you have a beer or whatever.
By now, your salty water should either be boiling or damn close. Drop a pound of rigatoni into your boiling water, and dump the bowl of chicken and vegetable action into the sauce. You’re gonna give the pasta only enough time to become al dente—we’re gonna finish it up in the sauce, where it will soak up the chicken-y goodness. While the pasta is doing its thing, break out the heavy cream. Fuck yeah. Heavy cream will be used to expand the gravy into a real sauce. Add the heavy cream to the pan as you did the chicken stock to the roux—little by little, tasting as you go. I like my sauce to retain some big-ass flavor, so I stop after a couple glugs of cream, but do your thing. I like this sauce to be spicy—hence the cherry peppers—so, if you’re like me, you might want to add a pinch or two of crushed red pepper. Do your thing.
Once the pasta is al dente, pull it out of the boiling water, drop it into the pan with the sauce, and stir it on in there. If you are able to retain some pasta water, you can add it, here, to further stretch the sauce and thin it out. Don’t worry, it’ll thicken again as it absorbs into the pasta. If you dumped the pasta and all the water into and through a colander, that’s fine. A splash of non-starchy non-pasta water won’t set you back.
Hey look! You’re done. You have made Chicken Riggies. Damn good Chicken Riggies, at that.
If we hit the target on this one, your Chicken Riggies will be rich and creamy and spicy and have a significant zing from the tomato paste, but, most of all, it will be chicken-y as hell, the chicken-y-iest pasta dish you’ve ever eaten. It will be so powerfully chicken-y, in fact, that it’s chicken-y-ness will not be significantly diminished if a dusting of pecorino romano should happen to find its way onto each serving. Just saying—I have tested this myself.
Give it a bite. Whoa that is fuckin’ rich. Damn right it’s rich! You saw the ingredients! It’s meant to be rich. But, oh man, the chicken. The chicken doesn’t just happen to be here, it wasn’t thrown in as a cheap, palatable hit of protein. This pasta has been Chickenated. Everything else is a helpful, complimentary role player. And, hey! It turns out, chicken is pretty damn good.
The right thing to do, here, is to lay a fat helping of Chicken Riggies down on a plate next to a fat blob of Utica Greens. The upstate experience, in full, my friends. It’s easy to make fun of Rocco from Utica—the black adidas track suit he wears literally everywhere, the too-long, too-thick, too-over-the-shirt chain around his neck, the crippling inferiority complex—but, man, gotta give him this: he and his people have conquered greens, and they have solved chicken. That’s a badass meal. High five, Rocco.
Chris Thompson lives in Virginia, hate-loves and writes about the Wizards, and spends too much of his meager income on meals out. He’s also written for Gawker,Vice Sports, and The Classical, and can be found on Twitter @MadBastardsAll. He’ll be doing these every other Saturday; check the Foodspin archive here.