I have a confession to make: I LOVE OLIVE GARDEN! There I said it – now let me explain myself (to all those Olive Garden “haters”).
This love relationship with Olive Garden started when my son was around 10 or 11 when Olive Garden made its’ debut in Long Island, New York (or at least that’s when my son noticed it).
Long Island was our “go to” place for family outings. We’d go to a mall, then to dinner, then to Barnes and Noble and stay there until closing or close to it. My son absolutely loved these moments (he’s hitting the big 3-0 this year so this was quite a bit ago) so we used to differ to him as to where to eat. When he said to us “Olive Garden” we thought it was a Chinese restaurant and when we went in to the restaurant, that was it for us. Love at first “bite”. 🙂 For me Olive Garden represents a happy time where we spent quality family time with our son (before the age of cellular phones and things that disrupt “quality” family time). We’ve tried to do the same with our daughter who came 17 years after my son, and guess what? She loves Olive Garden too!
Throughout the years Olive Garden has made a transformation (for the good, in my opinion) and one of my favorite dishes is their Smoked Mozzarella and Chicken dish. Because we don’t ALWAYS go to Olive Garden (we reserve it to special occasions – keeps the interest going), I’ve dissected the dish and tried to sort of re-create this dish to my taste. I have done some things different, as Olive Garden’s dish adds sundried tomatoes and red peppers and I choose to just do it with roasted red peppers. I feel it gives it a “Je ne sais quoi” (that about does it for my French y’all – thank you Mrs. Horowitz). They also use a smoked mozzarella and as I cannot find this cheese where I live, I used regular mozzarella and a little smoked provolone mixed together. That seemed to push this dish towards the “smoked cheese” flavor I was looking for. If you find smoked mozzarella by you, forget the provolone and just use that instead.
A LITTLE SIDE NOTE: While I understand that you good folks out there have the right to give your opinion, please resist the urge of writing to me saying “this does NOT taste the way Olive Garden makes it”. I know that – because if I knew their EXACT recipe, I’d be in SERIOUS trouble for putting it out here which is why I didn’t give it Olive Garden’s title. What this is, is MY version of this delicious dish, only with a twist, my personal twist.
I hope you give this a try and enjoy it as much as my family and I did. It may not be the exact thing you eat in Olive Garden, but who knows? You may even think it’s better! 🙂
- 8 oz. Baked Ziti pasta (if needing to do gluten-free, substitute with any gluten-free pasta)
- 1 lb. chicken breast tenders
- 3 tbsps. olive or vegetable oil
- ½ cup of flour
- ¼ cup of onions, diced
- ⅛ cup of crushed red pepper (you can add more to your taste)
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup half and half
- 1 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded
- ½ cup smoked provolone cheese, shredded
- 1 small red pepper, roasted, seeded then cut into lengthwise slices
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tbsp. fresh basil, minced (you can also use dried)
- 1 cup of reserved pasta water (just in case it's needed to thin out the sauce)
- Roast 1 red pepper (either by the oven method or if you have a gas stove, on top of your stove). Place in a plastic Ziploc bag and let it cool off enough to peel off the darkened skin (alternately you may also take a wet paper towel and peel it off this way). Take the core out and remove the seeds of the pepper and slice the roasted red peppers lengthwise, then set aside.
- Cook pasta according to package instructions. Reserve 1 cup of cooked pasta water, then drain and rinse the pasta with cold water to stop the cooking process. Set aside.
- Season chicken tenders to your liking (I use my adobo which has all the seasonings that I need to use to season chicken) and place about a ½ cup of flour in a separate plate.
- Dredge your seasoned chicken tenders in flour and coat lightly (remove excess flour) and set aside.
- Cover a 12-inch skillet with your choice of oil and heat fully.
- Sauté diced onions until translucent then add the minced garlic and crushed red peppers. Sauté these until the crushed red peppers and garlic release their fragrance. (DO NOT WALK AWAY! This should only be sautéed until you smell the crushed red peppers and the garlic - which should only take about a minute).
- Add the chicken tenders to the skillet with oil and pan fry until the chicken is cooked through on both sides and golden brown.
- Take sliced roasted red peppers and add them to the skillet with the chicken. Stir gently to mix in.
- Add the half and half and the cheeses to the skillet and mixing thoroughly and consistently,0 bring to a gentle boil.
- Reduce the heat and simmer to cook, all the while stirring until all of the cheeses melt and a creamy sauce forms. At this point check to see If you feel the sauce is too thick, this is where the reserved pasta water comes into play, add this water slowly a little bit at a time until you reach the consistency you desire. Keep the rest of the water just in case you need it.
- Add your cooked pasta to the mixture and stir to combine.
- Add your basil and up to ¼ teaspoon more of crushed red pepper flakes, if you wish. Continue to stir to combine.
- Season your mixture if you feel it needs salt, pepper to your liking.