I was shocked recently to hear that 30 to 40 percent of America’s food supply is wasted, equaling more than 20 pounds of food per person per month. A significant portion of that waste consists of farm-grown produce judged not attractive enough (not sufficiently regular in shape or blemish-free) to be sold in supermarkets.
Of course, you see less-than-perfect-looking vegetables and fruits in farmers-market stalls all the time. Imperfections, after all, can be the hallmarks of some organic or heirloom produce. And I’m happy to learn that some supermarket chains now are selling perfectly good but homelier-looking produce at bargain prices.
I understand, of course, that some cooks want the food they put on their plates to look perfect, or only charmingly imperfect, especially when serving vegetables or fruits in their raw state. In my restaurants, we certainly try to make our presentations look impeccable, reserving any items we think look beneath our standards — even though they’ll always be the highest-quality, best-tasting ingredients available — for use in soups, sautes, braises, stews or other cooked dishes.
A savvy home cook can certainly use that strategy, too. If you make a sauce, for example, from sun-ripened tomatoes you buy in the market or grow in your home garden, no one but you needs to know that they weren’t perfectly symmetrical or had some brown scars along their ridges. After all, you’re going to peel, seed and dice them before you cook them.
That’s why a recipe like my sauteed chicken breasts with tomatoes, sherry vinegar sauce and pasta is such a great dish to serve at this time of year. As market stalls or your own garden baskets fill up with the late-summer tomato harvest, you may well see some less-than-attractive specimens that just aren’t the best candidates for that tomato and mozzarella salad, even though their flavor is unbelievably good. So why not just throw them, minus the skin and seeds, into a saute pan to become one of the most delicious sauces? You can pair the sauce with sauteed chicken breasts, seafood fillets, turkey-breast cutlets or slices of pork tenderloin.
Even better still, the dish cooks fairly quickly, so you won’t be spending too long standing over a hot stove on a summer evening. The quantities given make so much good sauce that you should serve the dish over some simply cooked pasta to soak it all up; or substitute steamed rice or another grain, or your favorite mashed potatoes.
Once tomato season is over, you don’t even have to wait until next year to make the dish. It’s also excellent made with good-quality canned tomatoes like the San Marzano variety. So you can go on enjoying the taste of summer tomatoes throughout autumn, winter and into spring.
SAUTEED CHICKEN BREASTS WITH TOMATOES, SHERRY VINEGAR SAUCE AND PASTA
3 pounds fresh sun-ripened tomatoes, or 3 cups canned diced tomatoes
4 boneless, skinless chicken-breast halves
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
All-purpose flour, for dusting
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium shallots, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
1/2 pound (bite-sized dried pasta shapes such as bow ties or large macaroni
3/4 cup good-quality canned chicken broth
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons minced fresh chervil
2 teaspoons minced fresh dill
2 teaspoons minced fresh Italian parsley
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Fill a mixing bowl with ice cubes and water, placing the bowl on the counter near the stove.
Meanwhile, if using fresh tomatoes, cut out their cores with the tip of a small sharp knife; then score a shallow X in the opposite end of each tomato. Use a slotted spoon or wire skimmer to lower the tomatoes carefully into the boiling water; as soon as their skins begin to wrinkle, 15 to 30 seconds, use the spoon or skimmer to transfer the tomatoes to the ice water to cool. Leave the pot of water boiling.
Peel the skins from the cooled tomatoes. Cut each in half and squeeze out the seeds. Cut the tomatoes into 1/2-inch dice and transfer to a bowl. Set aside.
Season the chicken breasts all over with salt and pepper. Dust them lightly with flour.
In a large heavy nonstick saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. As soon as it is hot enough to shimmer slightly and swirl easily around the pan, add the chicken breasts, and saute just until golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Remove the chicken to a platter, and cover with aluminum foil to keep warm.
At the same time, drain all but a thin coating of fat from the saute pan. Add the shallots, garlic and thyme; saute for 1 minute. Add the vinegar, and stir and scrape with a wooden spoon to deglaze the pan. Raise the heat to high, bring the liquid to a boil, and cook until it has reduced by half.
While the liquid is reducing, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente — tender but still slightly chewy — following the manufacturer’s suggested cooking time.
Stir the fresh diced tomatoes or canned tomatoes, chicken broth, tomato paste and honey into the reduced vinegar mixture. Simmer briskly, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened slightly but is still loose and juicy.
Carefully return the chicken breasts to the pan, nestling them into the sauce. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and continue cooking until the chicken is done, about 6 minutes longer.
Remove the chicken from the sauce and set aside. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce, tossing thoroughly to coat.
To serve, spoon the pasta and sauce into a large shallow serving bowl or individual pasta bowls. Arrange the chicken breasts on top. Garnish with chervil, dill and parsley.