Sweet, savory, quick, delicious: Sweet Potato Sage Pasta with Chicken

by Terry B on January 4, 2012

A handful of fresh ingredients—sweet potato, sage, onion, garlic and chicken—make a sweet/savory pasta dish that’s weeknight quick. Recipe below.

With holiday excesses behind us, it’s good to get back to quick, simple, everyday cooking. This dish is one of my favorite examples of that kind of cooking, in that involves fresh ingredients, using up leftovers and unexpected synapses firing.

One thing I’ve noticed in writing about food for the past five years or so is that it makes me think about food, a lot. Sometimes it seems that everything I see or read or hear or smell or taste has the potential to inspire some cooking idea. A couple of years ago, I wrote about a photo I came across somewhere. It wasn’t a food photo, but rather a shot of a small village clinging to a seaside cliff. Maybe it was somewhere on the Mediterranean, maybe not. The buildings were impossibly brightly colored, the streets impossibly narrow and steep. The very first thing I thought when I saw the picture was, “I wonder what you would find to eat in this place.”

The origin of the pasta dish above was two sentences in a restaurant review in the Chicago Reader: “The cappellacci is particularly recommended. Often referred to as ‘pope’s’ or ‘brigand’s’ hats, these tender pillows are stuffed with sweet squash and Parmigiano, sauteed in sage and brown butter, and sprinkled with crumbled amaretti, the almond cookies that transport this sumptuous northern recipe into the region of dessert.”

The two things that leapt out at me from this passage (and as a writer and lover of long sentences, I bow to Mike Sula for his 43-word second sentence here) were sweet squash and sage. I didn’t have a squash on hand, but there was a sweet potato in the fridge not getting any younger. And the sage plant that had summered in a pot in our yard was giving up the ghost in our living room, less than happy with our bay window. I could immediately taste its salvaged leaves with the sweet potato.

I had neither the patience to make little pasta pillows nor a hankering for something from the “region of dessert.” But pasta sounded like a good idea. Adding onion and garlic to the mix would take the sweet potato in a savory direction. And a little chicken would make it a meal. If you’d like to make a vegetarian version, just skip the chicken and add a generous amount of freshly grated Parmesan cheese at the end.

Speeding up sweet potatoes. Mark Bittman is a genius. Let me just say that right here. Almost four years ago, he wrote a piece about really cooking with a microwave. Turns out it’s a great way to cook lots of vegetables—they retain more color, more flavor and, according to some studies, more vitamins. The microwave is also a great tool for parboiling root vegetables. I first used this technique when I made Roast Chicken with Root Vegetables. Here, two minutes or so in the microwave softens the sweet potatoes for sautéing.

Sweet Potato Sage Pasta with Chicken
Serves 2 generously (or 3 modestly)

1 medium sweet potato (about 10 ounces), peeled and cubed
1 medium onion, sliced
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized chunks (or chicken breast meat—see Kitchen Notes)
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage (or 2 teaspoons dried)

6 ounces uncooked penne pasta (or other short pasta)

Start a pot of water for the pasta. Put the cubed sweet potato in a lidded, microwave-safe container. Add 2 teaspoons of water and microwave for 2 minutes with the lid vented. Test sweet potato with the tip of a sharp knife; the knife should insert easily. You want the potato just tender, but not mushy. If not, microwave it for an additional minute and test again. (I’ve made this twice—one sweet potato was done in 2 minutes, the other took 4 minutes.)

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium flame. Drain sweet potato and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring and turning occasionally. Add onion and toss to coat. If using dried sage, add to pan now. Cook for a minute or two, stirring occasionally. Add chicken to pan. Season generously with salt and pepper and cook until chicken is just cooked through, stirring occasionally, 5 to 6 minutes. Add garlic to pan and cook until just fragrant, about 45 seconds. Remove from heat.

Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, reserving 1/4 cup cooking water. Add to skillet with sweet potato mixture and toss to combine. If the dish seems dry, add a little reserved pasta water, a tablespoon at a time (I didn’t need any). If you’re using fresh sage, sprinkle with 2/3 of the sage and toss to combine. Divide among shallow pasta bowls and top with remaining sage. Serve immediately.

Kitchen Notes

Choosing, preparing chicken. Boneless, skinless chicken breast meat may be more readily available, and it will work fine for this dish. But I find chicken thighs more flavorful and less likely to be dry. If you can’t find chicken thighs that have already been boned and skinned, it’s easy to do it yourself—and as a bonus, you’ll save a lot of money. You’ll find excellent instructions at allrecipes.com. Whether you choose breasts or thighs, you want 1-1/2 to 2 cups of cut-up chicken.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

kitchenriffs January 4, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Nice recipe. Squash/sweet potatoes are used a lot in ravioli filling, but not so much as a chunky ingredient with pasta (or at least I haven’t seen it). I like this dish, a lot. I wonder how this would taste with leftover roast sweet potatoes and turkey (from Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner)? Maybe add a touch of Marsala wine to it? Anyway, nice recipe – thanks. And Happy New Year!

angela@spinachtiger January 4, 2012 at 9:47 pm

A nice way to keep the winter flavors going but lighten it up a bit. I have pots to cook vegetables in that only require a few drops of water. Amazing. But if I didn’t have them, microwave would be my choice.

Cynthia Fox-Giddens January 5, 2012 at 3:15 am

Perfect dish and I like how quick it is to make :) The ingredients are all my faves. Happy New Year!

Terry B January 5, 2012 at 10:54 pm

Kitchenriffs, I hope your Thanksgiving or Christmas leftovers were frozen! This kind of dish lends itself to all kinds of experimentation, so please do play. If you’re adding Marsala or brandy or any other kind of booze, do so sparingly, maybe 1/4 cup, and add it before adding the pasta to give most of it a chance to evaporate. You want the flavor it will leave behind, not the soupiness.

Angela, if you haven’t done so, click through to Bittman’s article about microwave cooking. It’s an eye opener on simple techniques.

Thanks, Cynthia! And happy new year to you too—and everyone.

Catering Supplies January 6, 2012 at 10:31 am

Simply mouth watering can you tell me what mincing the garlic means? I just chopped it in to very small 1/4mm slices. Can you let me if this is correct.

Terry B January 6, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Catering Supplies, mincing just means chopping something really, really finely. But given the business you’re in, I can’t imagine you didn’t already know that.

Anita January 7, 2012 at 7:21 pm

Ah, but Terry, they talk funny over there :) Took me a while to figure out ground beef is often referred to as “mince” in Brit recipes – granted that’s a noun, but still.

Anyway, I looked at this recipe and thought – potatoes and pasta? Can we get much starchier? But then I read on, and you’re right – butternut squash raviolis are some of my favorite foods anywhere, so why not? I used leftover chicken, but otherwise followed the recipe exactly, and as usual, I was not disappointed. Thank you! And Happy 2012!!

Terry B January 7, 2012 at 7:38 pm

Thanks, Anita—glad you liked it! And yes, sweet potatoes are a starch, but they also contain lots of beta-carotene, as well as vitamin C, potassium and other vitamins and minerals. Regarding the leftover chicken, I’m a fan of any cooking that makes use of leftovers.

Squid January 10, 2012 at 12:19 am

Glad to hear of somebody else who is as big a Mark Bittman fan as me. I love the balance of his approach to eating. He’s no nonsense, and keeps the politics to a minimum. One of my favorite recent articles was his countering the fallacy that fast/processed food was popular because it was cheaper. He proves it isn’t by any stretch. I’m also devoted to the Bittman Diet – whole grain for breakfast, intentionally healthy for lunch and then what you want for dinner (within reason), including wine. An understandable, sustainable way of eating.

Great Blog! Keep up the good work and great stories.

Terry B January 10, 2012 at 4:34 am

Thanks, Squid! Bittman calls his diet Vegan Before Six. He was having health issues and chose this approach to lose weight, lower his cholesterol and generally improve his health. And you’re right—it’s a good approach to eating better for the planet too.

kitchenriffs January 11, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Kitchenriffs, I hope your Thanksgiving or Christmas leftovers were frozen!

:-) That’s what I get for writing too quickly and without thinking about how others might interpert my words! I was actually thinking ahead to next Thanksgiving and Christmas – I’m always looking for recipes for leftovers. And this recipe looks like one that could easily be adapted to use leftovers. BTW, your point about the Marsala is right-on: I’d reduce the Marsala to a glaze. As I was imagining the recipe, I’d sauté the onion (adding salt, pepper, and dried herb); when cooked to my preference, I’d add garlic and cook for a few seconds, then added chunks of leftover sweet potato and turkey, sauté briefly (maybe a minute), then add some Marsala (and a quarter cup or a bit more sounds right). I’d lower the heat and reduce the Marsala to a glaze – and this process sould also heat the sweet potato and turkey and help marry all the flavors together. And at that point add the pasta. Sorry for being so incomplete and unclear.

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