A few days ago, I escaped the humid crush of the Eastern United States with my annual return to my childhood home in Southwest Colorado. Each summer, I look forward to this return with great anticipation, but each year I continue to be humbled and amazed by how much I love this place. To be sure, living in the mountain desert has its hardships: this year’s drought is threatening to run our well completely dry, and the cool dry air that normally greats me when stepping off the plane was this year flooded with smoke from the West Fork Fire Complex, a wildfire raging in the high country just an hour away. My parents keep large stock pots in each bathroom so that we can catch the gray water from our showers, haul it outside, and attempt to help our adolescent trees survive the long, dry summer.
Despite all this, I miss the Southwest. I miss watching the summer monsoons boil over the mountains, occasionally releasing precious rain to the parched earth below. I miss the abrupt landscape shifts from spruce tree forests, the sagebrush meadows, and the bare sandstone mesas and canyons. I miss the cultures, celebrations, people, and flavors.
When I’m out to eat, I frequently seek out southwest-y meals on a menu. A few weeks ago I was pleasantly surprised by a meal at a Chapel Hill favorite that I urgently wanted to recreate at home, and after Brad and I completely consumed multiple batches, I’m sure this will remain on my own home menu often.
I really don’t know why I didn’t think of this pasta sooner. Perhaps because I so strongly associate pasta with Italian flavors. But friends! I urge you to release pasta from it’s bonds in tomato sauce and alfredo. It is equally at home surrounded by black beans, red peppers, and spicy red chili.
We start with a wide array of foods that will give this pasta lots of texture and color. The peppers, onions, black beans, and corn will come together to create the base of the “sauce” for this zesty pasta. After they are cooked together, just a bit of cream is added, along with a decent dose of red chili powder to pump up the flavor.
The chicken is seasoned with my Homemade Fajita Seasoning, a go-to in my house for LOTS of meals. Looks like I need to mix up another batch soon…
Now with all the textures already integrated into the pasta, this dish would be perfectly delicious. But I really wanted something super-crisp and crunchy to take it over the edge. A couple of corn tortillas sliced into strips and baked into, essentially, corn chips, did just the trick. Sprinkled on top of the pasta with some chunks of cool avocado, it’s a pasta party!
This meal is one of the favorites that has come out of my kitchen in the last few months. It’s bright, pretty, and full of interesting textures and flavors. And frankly, it tastes like home.
Southwest Chicken Pasta
Inspired by Top o’ the Hill
6-8 oz skinless boneless chicken breast
2-3 tsp fajita seasoning
3 T canola oil, divided
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
4 oz canned black beans, rinsed and drained
2 ears fresh sweet corn, sliced raw off the cob
8 oz gemelli pasta
2 six-inch corn tortillas
3/4 c cream
1 1/2 tsp pure red chili powder
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
half an avocado, cut into 1″ chunks
Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of the canola oil in a small frying pan. Rub chicken on both sides with the fajita seasoning and pan-fry until cooked through. Remove to a cutting board and chop the chicken roughly into bite-sized pieces. Place under another plate to keep warm and set aside.
Preheat oven to 350° F. Slice two small corn tortillas into strips and place on a cookie sheet. Spray lightly with cooking spray and sprinkle with a bit of salt. Bake for 10-15 minutes until crisp and beginning to brown. Keep an eye on them, they can burn quickly!
Heat remaining canola oil in a large frying pan or skillet. Add onions and peppers and sauté over medium heat for 5-10 minutes until onions are tender and peppers are beginning to brown. While the onions and peppers cook, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add pasta, cooking ton al dente.
Add black beans and corn to the onion and pepper mixture and sauté for 2-3 minutes more. Reduce heat to low and add cream, chili powder, and cumin and mix well, allowing the mixture to simmer until the pasta is ready.
Drain pasta and add to the sauce mixture. Add the chicken and mix well until all pasta is coated. Serve sprinkled with crisp tortilla strips and a few chunks of avocado.