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While growing up in the Northeast, most cities seemed to have Italian-American neighborhoods with their own spin on the recipes brought to the states from the old country. Many are an Americanized version of what families enjoyed in Italy. Some of this was due to the limited availability of the fresh ingredients that were plentiful in Italian street markets and some of it was due to budget. Our immigrants struggled to make ends meet at first. Recipe variations from the original versions have become standard fare stateside. And that is what I grew up knowing as Italian food, comfort food to be more specific.
Chicken Riggies is one of those Italian-American dishes that originated in the US based on available ingredients. It is believed to have been first prepared in Central New York State. Utica, Clinton, and Syracuse all lay claim to having the best Chicken Riggies. This dish is rigatoni (riggies) that is served with a tomato and cream-based sauce with chicken pieces and sliced peppers. Some of those peppers are pretty spicy.
You will find Chicken Riggies recipes that have wine or sherry, mushrooms, and olives added. The version in this post does not include those additions. But you can add whatever you want to personalize the recipe. This is also a recipe that is made on the stovetop. You can bake Chicken Riggies in an oven, just as you would baked ziti. I reserve that step for reheating the leftovers of this dish the next day.
Basic Chicken Riggies ingredients include Rigatoni pasta, diced chicken breast, aromatic vegetables, sweet and spicy peppers, tomatoes, cream, and grated cheese. When using skinless, boneless chicken breasts, my preference is to first briefly brine the breasts in a saltwater bath. This tenderizes and moisturizes the meat, which makes a big difference in the recipe because the chicken remains soft, just like the pasta.
After that initial step, I brown the chicken and then start the sauce. Once the sauce gets going, I place a big pot of generously salted water on high to allow it to come to a boil. Once the sauce is simmering and the pot of water is boiling, you can drop the pasta in the water and cook until just al dente. It will finish cooking in the sauce. Don’t drain the pasta. Take it directly from the with a spider or slotted spoon so that some of the starchy pasta water ends up in the sauce. The water seasons the sauce and adds a little silkiness that helps the sauce cling to the ridges and tubes of the pasta. I love this trick.
Chicken Riggies is a very filling and satisfying dish. To round out the meal, add something green. You can try Italian pesto butter beans with broccoli, lemony asparagus, or eggplant and zucchini caponata. All three dishes are full of vegetables and fiber to balance the carbohydrates and protein.
- 2 large skinless boneless chicken breast halves
- 1 ½ Tbsp kosher salt
- 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil divided
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 large onion peeled and diced
- 3 cloves of garlic minced
- 4 green cubanelle peppers seeded and thinly sliced
- 1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
- 2 or 3 jarred hot cherry peppers sliced thinly
- 1 16-ounce package of rigatoni pasta
- ½ cup heavy cream
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
- Fresh basil leaves for garnish optional
- All ingredients ready? Let's begin!
- Place the chicken breasts in a baking dish or bowl. Add 1-1/2 tablespoon of kosher salt. Add enough filtered water to cover the chicken.
- Cover the dish and place it in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours.
- Remove the chicken from the fridge. Rinse it well under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Cut the chicken breasts into 1-inch cubes.
- In a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, warm 1-1/2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the chicken, season with pepper, and sauté until the chicken in just browned but not fully cooked, stirring occasionally, approximately 5 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a platter.
- Add the remaining 1-1/2 tablespoons of oil to the pan. Add the onion and sauté until the onion starts to soften, about 3 minutes.
- Stir in the garlic and cubanelle pepper slices. Continue to sauté until the aromatics and peppers have softened and are fragrant, approximately 5 minutes.
- Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Drop the pasta in the water and cook according to the package directions.
- While the pasta is cooking, add the tomatoes, cherry peppers, and browned chicken to the pan. Bring this to a rolling simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the sauce for about 10 to 15 minutes until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce is the desired consistency.
- Stir the cream into the sauce and allow it to come back to a simmer for just a couple of minutes.
- Transfer the pasta to the sauce using a spider or slotted spoon, allowing some of the pasta water to drip into the sauce.
- Stir to coat the pasta well. If the sauce is too thick, add some more pasta water. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Spoon the pasta and chicken mixture into a serving bowl or individual bowls. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and garnish with basil, if using. Serve immediately and enjoy.
Notes & Tips
- It is not 100% necessary that you brine the chicken. However, I find that breast meat can become rubbery when cooked in the sauce if not brined first. Brining moistens and tenderizes the chicken so that it isn’t tough. I have been brining skinless, boneless chicken breasts before cooking them in any manner for several months now after realizing how much more tender this makes the meat.
- Most Chicken Riggies recipes will tell you to cook the pasta first and keep it warm while you make the sauce. I don’t find that practical or successful. The pasta will continue to cook while it is draining and will become mushy. I much prefer to cook the pasta while the sauce is reducing. Then, transfer the pasta directly from the water to the sauce. You want some of the starchy pasta water to end up in the sauce for silkiness.
- When seasoning the dish, be judicious with the salt. Brined chicken is a little salty, as is the pasta water and this may be enough seasoning. So, taste the sauce before you add any more salt.
Substitutions & Additions
Cubanelle peppers are preferable for this recipe. If you can’t find these peppers, feel free to substitute with 2 bell peppers. Cubanelles are smaller than bells, so only use 2 bell peppers.
Cherry peppers can be pretty spicy, so decided how hot you want the dish to be and adjust the quantities to your preference. I actually use fresh cherry peppers from my garden, rather than jarred. This makes the dish even spicier, but I love my fresh cherry peppers.
There are Chicken Riggies recipes that add button mushroom slices and black olives to the dish. This is fine if you really want to stretch the recipe and introduce more flavors and textures. Some recipes also add white wine or dry sherry to deglaze the pan before the tomatoes are added.