If there’s anything I gravitate towards in the cold winter months it’s hands down, a giant bowl of steaming pasta paired with a hearty red or meat sauce. At times it’s even more comforting than a warm hug or roaring fire on the coldest of nights, although if I can have all three simultaneously, that would be preferred.
With the temperatures getting increasingly colder as each day passes, I’m craving comfort more and more, so pasta is something that pops up on my menu at least once a week. While my husband is partial to a rigatoni or penne, I happen to love the child-like action of twirling infinitely long pasta strands onto my fork.
Plus, I love how each noodle soaks up every ounce of sauce like a sponge, infusing so much flavor into each bite. In fact, typically when cooking pasta, I deeply undercook each noodle, even under al dente, and let the pasta finish cooking in whatever sauce I’ve prepared. If you’re doing anything other than that, change your ways this very minute, you’ll thank me later.
Healthier Chicken Bolognese with Linguini is a sort of compromise between my husband and I; while he may prefer a sturdy noodle as opposed to long strands of linguini, his choice of sauce is always one that’s slightly heartier than I’d typically go for. The combination of the two is the perfect winter pasta dish that we both love.
It’s also one of the sauces that I go back to over and over again for its classic attributes, and ability to warm me from the inside out.
Typically a Bolognese is made with a mixture of ground beef and ground pork, but here I wanted to lighten it up just a touch, so I swapped out the red meat for leaner, boneless skinless chicken thighs. The chicken thighs reduce the fat content of the sauce, but because chicken thighs contain more fat than breast meat, the heartiness and richness isn’t lost in the fastidiously long cooking process.
I have a hard time finding ground chicken thighs, so I actually buy boneless, skinless chicken thighs from the butcher counter, cut them into relatively small pieces, then line them up on a sheet pan and pop them into the freeze for about 15 minutes until they’re just barely starting to freeze. I then transfer them to a heavy duty food processor and pulse until each piece of chicken is ground.
Works like a charm every time. Of course if you have access to ground chicken thighs, by all means skip this step.
Of course the bulk of a Bolognese is the meat, but what many people don’t realize is that a significant amount of vegetables play a role in the finished product as well. In fact, the base of the sauce is a mixture of a liberal amount of finely chopped onion, garlic, carrots and celery that become almost undetectable after a whirl in the food processor.
The vegetables become similar to a paste in texture and are cooked down in a little bit of olive oil before adding in the ground chicken.
The next layer of flavor that’s added is a concentrated tomato paste; I like to use tomato paste because it punches so much tomato flavor into a condensed form. It’s actually a secret weapon I use in most of my tomato based sauces, and especially for the sauces that require shorter cooking times.
Next up, a generous pour of a good quality red wine is added, and simmered until it’s reduced by about half. A whole 32 ounce can of crushed or whole tomatoes is added along with a little bit of water and then the sauce is simmered until the liquid is reduced. At this point, whole milk is added in, and the whole process is repeated.
What you want is for the sauce to continually reduce, so you may need to add more water every 30 minutes or so. The thought process behind this is that with each reduction, the flavor intensifies more and more until you’re left with a sauce that has some serious flavor.
The recipe for this sauce makes an obscene amount, enough for almost two pounds of pasta. What I like to do is use half of it for dinner, and freeze the other half for another time for an instant comfort meal in a pinch.
Healthier Chicken Bolognese with Linguini
- 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs, or 2 pounds ground chicken thighs
- 2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 3 celery stalks, roughly chopped
- 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
- 2 garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2 teaspoons salt, divided
- 1 3 ounce can tomato paste
- 2 tablespoon sugar
- 1 cup red wine (merlot, shiraz or pinot noir will do)
- 28 ounce can crushed or whole tomatoes
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup milk
- 1 ½ pounds linguini
- Parmesan cheese for serving
- If grinding chicken thighs at home, cut thighs into medium-sized piece. Spread on a baking sheet and pop into the freezer for 20 minutes. Once pieces are partially frozen, transfer to food processor and pulse until ground.
- Add carrots, celery, onion and garlic to food processor, pulse until mixture becomes paste-like in texture. Clean food processor bowl and blade.
- Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet, add vegetables and ½ teaspoon salt, cook until softened, about three minutes. Transfer veggies to plate.
- Add ground chicken and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil to skillet, cook until brown.
- Transfer everything back to the food processor and pulse until meat is in tiny pieces. Add meat and veggies back to the pan along with tomato paste. Stir in paste and cook for 1-2 minutes.
- Add in red wine, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 1-2 minutes.
- Add in crushed tomatoes, 1 cup of water, sugar and remaining salt.
- Simmer until mixture is reduced, about 45 minutes. Add remaining cup of water. Reduce again for 30-45 minutes.
- Add milk and simmer another 45 minutes to one hour.
- Season sauce with salt as needed.
- When sauce is almost complete, bring a large stock pot of water to a boil. Season generously with salt.
- Cook until pasta is just shy of aldente. Add to the sauce and cook until pasta has reached al dente (still toothsome).
- Serve with parmesan cheese and bread for dipping.
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