You would think, given the fact that today was a holiday and none of us had to deal with work or school commitments, I’d have put together a better plan for dinner. After all, what else did I have to do? But no. My brain, too, was on vacation. Five o’clock rolled around and I didn’t have a clue about what I was going to feed people tonight. At times like these, it’s good to have a repertoire of quick dinner components in the back of your mind.
One of my go-to dinner favorites is boneless, skinless chicken breast. It’s a good source of protein without much fat, it’s easy to chew (a big plus, in Mr. Picky’s book), and it has such a mild flavor that goes with just about any side dish or seasoning. Some folks complain that it’s too dry, but in my experience it dries out only when it spends too much time in the oven. People are terrified of raw chicken, so they overcook it to be on the safe side. 30 minutes in a 350 degree oven will give you juicy chicken that’s cooked all the way through. If you’re still nervous, use a meat thermometer to make sure the internal temperature of the chicken has reached 165 degrees. (That’s the USDA recommendation, anyway.) Before baking, just rub the chicken breasts with a little olive oil, then sprinkle with garlic powder, basil, or whatever other spices sound good. Bake a few extras to have on hand for salads or sandwiches–cooked chicken will stay fresh for about four days if it’s wrapped in plastic and kept in your fridge. Freeze any cooked chicken you won’t be able to use in that amount of time, then defrost it when you need it.
While I had the chicken breasts in the oven, I start rummaging through the cupboard for side dish options. When I saw a large container of orzo pasta, I had a moment of inspiration. Orzo looks like rice, but I’m not a big rice fan, so it’s a better option for my family. To make a quick side dish with orzo, bring 4 cups (one 32-ounce carton) of chicken broth to a boil, then dump 2 cups of dry orzo into the bubbling broth. Turn the heat down to a simmer, leave the pot uncovered, and let the broth do its magic. In about ten minutes, the orzo will have absorbed all the chicken broth and plumped up to its full size. Turn off the heat. Stir in two handfuls (about a cup) of shredded asiago cheese–you could also use Parmesan–and stir until the cheese has melted. Season the orzo with garlic powder and freshly cracked black pepper. If you have some lemon zest in the freezer, toss a teaspoon of that into the pot as well. Then set the pot on a colder burner until the chicken is done. It won’t get cold, but the cheese will stabilize and thicken as the orzo cools a little bit.
Just before you’re ready to serve the orzo, toss in a cup of thawed frozen peas for an extra nutritional kick. Peas are high in fiber, B vitamins, iron–and, believe it or not, vitamin C. Stir them in gently, and the hot pasta will warm the peas in just a few seconds.
And there it is: dinner in a flash! By the time the chicken has finished baking, the orzo will be ready to serve. Add some fresh fruit or toss a side salad if you have an extra-hungry crowd and you’ll be good to go.