We’re not about super complex, chef-level cooking. If we make a nice cooked meal that involves fresh vegetables, we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves. But we do like to entertain!
So, I’ve had to cultivate a few back-pocket recipes for those times when cooking for a large crowd is required. It’s also handy to have on hand while waiting for the Christmas ham or turkey to be done already.
This is basically a classic Caprese salad, but with pasta (and optional chicken). It’s my go-to dish for everything from potluck dinners to Superbowl Sunday. When the boys come home from college, I like to keep this in the fridge in case anyone arrives hungry (which is often).
It works for everyone from vegans (leave out the chicken + cheese) to wheat-free types (use corn or rice pasta) if you adjust accordingly. Best of all, it’s so fast and easy; you can do it on the day of a party and leave it to sit at room temperature for hours. You can also make this the night before if you like, but you really won’t need to.
For this hearty, healthy dish, you are looking at maybe 30 minutes of prep time, tops, and most of that will be slicing vegetables. This recipe serves about 10 to 20 people. Ready?
Here’s what you’ll need:
- A big pot for blanching broccoli and boiling pasta. I invested in this one 10 years ago. So worth it! If you don’t have a huge pot, you may have to cook the pasta in two lots.
- Large colander to drain pasta and broccoli
- Microplane grater. Mine is old, but I love it. This is the closest one I can find.
- Extra large mixing bowl (preferably with a lid)!
- Large serving bowl
- 2 x 16oz. boxes of penne pasta. If you are making gluten-free pasta, make 2 x batches, one regular, and the other gluten-free.
- 2-3 x punnets of grape tomatoes (or cherry tomatoes) whichever looks better at the market.
- 2 x punnets of broccoli florets (or two heads of broccoli).
- 6 cloves of fresh garlic peeled and minced. We love garlic, but you do you.
- 2 x punnets of Bocconcini mozzarella.
- Fresh Basil Leaves (two big handfuls, washed, patted dry, and freshly torn or cut with scissors.
- Plenty of good extra virgin olive oil
- 4 tablespoons of Balsamic vinegar.
- If you are using cheese, grate about ½ cup good quality Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
- OPTIONAL: You can add grilled chicken breasts if you want to amp up the animal protein but serve them separately. People can add it to their bowls if they want meat!
- If you are adding chicken, marinate those chicken breasts first. If you like to get a head start the day before, this is where to do it. We make our own marinade (aka vinaigrette), but you can use any store-bought Italian dressing if pressed for time. Marinate for at least 1 hour (up to overnight) in a covered glass dish in the refrigerator.
- Prep the vegetables. Cut the broccoli, tomatoes, tofu, and/or cheese into chunky bite-size pieces. I use a serrated steak knife for this part.
- Mix the tomatoes + tofu and/or cheese and tofu, and basil leaves with a cup of olive oil, vinegar, garlic, and basil in a large mixing bowl.
- Turn it around with a large spoon until all the veggies and cheese/tofu are covered and glistening. Transfer to a small serving bowl. Add salt + pepper to taste, cover and set aside.
- Once marinated, lay the chicken breasts out on a baking pan (we use foil to line the pan, but you don’t have to).
- Broil or grill them until thoroughly cooked on each side (about 10 minutes). Always err on the side of overcooking the chicken for this dish, so it can safely sit out at room temperature for a bit.
- While the chicken is cooking, salt and boil the water. When it hits a rolling boil, throw the broccoli in for about 30 seconds, until bright green and crisp-tender. DO NOT turn your back on it for a minute! Blanching broccoli happens quickly. Remove it with a large spider strainer and set it aside in another bowl to cool. Rinse broccoli under cold water and toss a few ice cubes on top to stop it from cooking further.
- Use that same broccoli water to cook the pasta. Follow the directions on the box for "al dente." Do not overcook.
- Drain pasta, coat with a generous slosh of olive oil (about 5 tablespoons), and set aside to cool.
- Once the pasta is at room temperature, combine all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Mix ingredients with pasta to make sure everything is well coated with the oil. Maybe bump it up with a bit of garlic salt and red chili flakes if you like a bit of heat.
- Transfer to the serving bowl. Grate some Parmigiano Reggiano and sprinkle on top if you like.
- Make yourself a small bowl, cover the rest lightly, and pour yourself a drink.
You’re done, and ready to receive your guests, you clever thing.