Cooking Techniques & Kitchen Formulas: Pasta Toss with Asparagus and Chicken

Pasta Toss Picture

Use whatever vegetables and other ingredients are in-season to make this formula work year-round.

I had the privilege of speaking with Michael Ruhlman the other day, one of my heroes who also happens to be from my hometown. We talked about apps (his are Ratio and Bread Baking Basics) but also about food of course, and his “I’m not a recipe person” philosophy. Michael is really into techniques and methods, but recipes…not so much. Is an exact detailed recipe too limiting?

This takes me back to high school actually. I hated Biology because the memorization was a painful obstacle, solved only by brute force.  Chemistry was better, with more reusable concepts. Physics class was heaven, as the entire year could be boiled down to a handful of core formulas, from which everything else could be derived (no brute force required). Everybody with me on that? No?!?

Back in the kitchen, general methods which can be easily memorized and used a myriad of ways, hold a lot of value. A detailed recipe where each ingredient is carefully pre-defined and measured out, there’s value and predictability there but less far-reaching potential.

But conventions and expectations call for specific details and recipe standards. So here’s a specific recipe meant for tampering, more of a method or master recipe. My employer’s cafeteria does a great job of executing this formula with many different seasonal ingredients year-round. And I hope this “master recipe” is predictably good for your family, with many variances you invent along the way.

What do you prefer, a specific recipe with all the details laid out, or a general method pointing you in a general direction? What are your preferred cooking techniques in the kitchen?

Recipe: Pasta Toss with Asparagus and Chicken

Summary: This ‘pasta toss’ approach is a great method which can be varied with whatever ingredients are in-season.


  • Pasta and toppings:
  • 1 pound uncooked fettucini noodles
  • 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 1 pound asparagus spears, washed, snapped, and cut to 2-inch lengths
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • For the parmesan cream sauce:
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 ounces Parmesan cheese (plus extra for topping), shredded or grated finely as with a Microplane grater
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt


  1. Heat a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add one tablespoon of salt to the water, then add the noodles. Return the pot to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally to avoid clumping. Cook the noodles until they are just slightly firm to the bite, about 12 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, lay each chicken breast on the cutting board and cut it parallel with the cutting board to make two layers (butterflied). Sprinkle both sides of the chicken breast pieces with salt and pepper.
  3. Heat a wide heavy-bottomed skillet over moderately high heat until it just begins to smoke. Reduce heat to medium, add the chicken in a single layer, and cover with a splash guard or lid. Cook for two minutes, then turn the chicken pieces and continue until cooked through, 2-4 minutes.
  4. To make the sauce, heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. When the butter has melted and began bubbling, whisk in the flour. Cook for 1 minute, stirring occasionally, and then begin adding milk gradually while whisking constantly. Continue cooking until the sauce begins to thicken. Remove from the heat.
  5. Allow the sauce to cool for one minute before adding the Parmesan cheese and salt, being sure that the cheese is finely shredded not grated. Stir until the cheese is incorporated and the sauce is smooth.
  6. When the fettucini has finished cooking, lift it out of the water into a serving bowl using tongs or a pasta fork. Add the asparagus spears to the water and cook until just fork-tender, about 2 minutes.
  7. Serve the fettucini with the parmesan cream sauce, topped with chicken, asparagus, pine nuts , and a sprinkling of parmesan.

Culinary tradition: Italian

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Posted in Dinner, Fast, Food Articles, Kid Friendly, Philosophies, Recipes, Techniques
2 comments on “Cooking Techniques & Kitchen Formulas: Pasta Toss with Asparagus and Chicken
  1. Krista says:

    I am SO with you on the Biology class- failed it 3 times! Chemistry was great, never did Physics. As far as recipes go, I prefer to follow specifics on a recipe, especiallyif it’s my first time making it. Then, as I cannot leave a recipe alone, will play with it and tweak it to my desires or the wants of the other picky eaters in my house 🙂

  2. Lynn says:

    It’s nice hearing you talk about stepping away from the recipe and working more by feel. A large percentage of time when I make something from a recipe, I end up tweeking things as it would not turn out if made exactly by the recipe. I’m all for learning methods!

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