'To die for': Quicker, healthier Sicilian dish evokes past

'To die for': Quicker, healthier Sicilian dish evokes past

February 20th, 2013 by Clint Cooper in Life Entertainment

Sicilian Chicken Rigatoni can be made with ground beef, turkey and pork meatballs, or it can be served meatless.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.


Do you have a dish that you're known for? Do your friends and neighbors ask for that one recipe? Is there something your family asks you to make over and over again? Is it a casserole? A cake? A fantastic salad? A savory soup?

The Times Free Press would like you to share that dish with our readers and to show you preparing the dish. If you would like to become a part of this new feature or if you have someone you'd like to suggest (with their permission), contact Clint Cooper at 423-757-6497 or ccooper@timesfreepress.com.

Saturday nights in Irwin, Pa., in the 1950s were special, says Will Stern, because that was the one day his dad was off work from the steel mill.

That meant mom Eleanor would cook one of a rotating selection of four or five meals. The Italian family's favorite, he says, was her Sicilian Rigatoni, sometimes made with pork roast and sometimes with meatballs.

It was, the 66-year-old Stern remembers, "to die for."

Stern, the strength and conditioning specialist and adjunct faculty member at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Covenant College and Tennessee Tech University, now is a bachelor and has little time to cook because of his busy schedule. The dish took his mother four or five hours to prepare, Stern says.

"I tried to do it," he says. "It took too long. I don't have time for four or five hours."

But Stern has modified his mother's recipe and serves it to friends, neighbors and for occasions where guests are asked to bring a dish.

After it's served, he says, he is bombarded by questions about the ingredients and how he makes it. It even answered his co-worker's question of whether or not he could cook, he says.

The dish is not only easy and quick to prepare -- 20 to 25 minutes -- but fits into his healthy eating lifestyle, Stern says.

"I cook as healthy as possible," says the former four-year national chairman of the Nutrition, Metabolism and Body Composition Special Interest Group of the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Despite its name, Sicilian Chicken Rigatoni can be varied to taste, Stern says. In place of the chicken, he has used ground beef, ground pork and ground turkey to make meatballs -- as his mother did -- for the dish. It's also good served meatless.

The varieties of diced tomatoes and pasta sauces also give the dish infinite possibilities, he says.

As to Stern's particular ingredients, he says the ridged rigatoni holds the sauce on the pasta. And he prefers sea salt flavored with garlic, basil and oregano to give the cooking pasta a little extra flavor.

Its artichokes, he says, "are really good for you," but he buys the vegetable in a jar rather than a can because it has less sodium.

"More or less," he says, "I think the artichokes are what makes the dish more Sicilian."

Using stevia, a natural sweetener or sugar substitute, cuts the acidity in the tomatoes, according to Stern. However, sugar or other sweeteners can be used.

The Romano cheese, Stern says, is stronger than the grated Parmesan often shaken on Italian dishes.

"That way," he says, "you don't need as much."

Stern, one of the first 126 specialists certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and one of only 350 to hold that certification with distinction, says his daily diet includes foods such as oatmeal, a whole wheat bagel with peanut butter, salads topped with the likes of chicken and/or black olives, lentils with rice and baked potatoes.

But there's nothing, he says, like the dish he and a sibling used to call -- because of the tubelike rigatoni and its accompanying red sauce -- sewer pipes.

Sicilian Chicken Rigatoni

1 can (12.5 ounces) 97 percent fat-free chicken breast (or rotisserie chicken breast, chopped)

1 box (16 ounces) rigatoni (or other pasta with ridges)

1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes (whatever flavor you prefer)

1 jar (24 ounces) pasta sauce (whatever flavor you prefer)

1 jar (12 ounces) marinated artichokes or marinated artichoke hearts

1 can (2.25 ounces) black olives

Sea salt, to taste

Stevia, to taste

Romano cheese, to taste

Place pasta in boiling water that has had a pinch of salt added to it. As the pasta cooks, combine pasta sauce and tomatoes in large microwave-safe dish. Drain artichokes, chopping if necessary, before stirring into sauce and tomatoes. Add chicken. Microwave on high for 6 minutes. Drain olives; add to pasta mixture. Add stevia. Drain pasta in colander. Stir pasta into sauce mixture. Top with grated Romano cheese. Serves 4-6.

- Will Stern