creamy, savory, brain numbing…
Back in college, we had this bar of pasta salads in the cafeteria with the best one being this unnamed creamy, savory, brain numbing chicken pasta salad made with what was probably caesar dressing (I honestly don’t even know what was in the stuff; only that it was my crack on days when I had evening classes). It was almost always raided, with everyone taking out the chunks of chicken, leaving the unlucky students with… just pasta and a few slivers of spinach….
Fast forward into the future, I got inspired to deconstruct this salad with absolutely no knowledge of how it was even made! It’s been years since I’ve even eaten it and my only hint was an unrelated salad that sort of looked like it at the grocery store for a whopping $5.99 for a measly 4oz container! The clues were caesar dressing and mayonnaise (I often forget that mayo isn’t just for sandwiches and burgers). So I got to work in the kitchen.
I went back and forth, adjusting the flavor as close to how I remember the pasta as possible. Ultimately, I was surprised at how much better this homemade version ended up being (I earnestly thought it was going to be a disaster)! I also used more chicken and more greens to make up for having often been last to the salad bar.
I guess this mystery unnamed salad really was a chicken caesar pasta salad!
You can go cheap on the ingredients if you want to, but using really good dressings is the key here. Use homemade or your favorite. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Sir Kensington’s Mayonnaise and Brianna’s Home Style Asiago Caesar Dressing, so those are the two I used for the creamy base.
If your local market sells it, aim for fresh penne, but there’s no shame in using dried pasta (I usually do since I have issues finding fresh penne too). Also if you can (because finding sugar-less condiments can feel impossible), aim for a dressing and mayo with no added sugar or at least no high fructose corn syrup. I’m amazed at how much corn syrup gets thrown into salad dressings and it’s called “healthy”; it’s completely unnecessary.
Makes awesome leftovers! Serve with garlic bread if you choose.
Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad
For the Pasta
- 2 LBS Chicken Breasts
- 2 Cups (150g) Baby Spinach or Baby Spinach & Spring Green Mix (chopped)
- 16 oz (454g) Penne
- 1 Broccoli Head roughly chopped
- 3 Garlic Cloves chopped
- ¼ Cup (60g) Sweet Yellow Onion (chopped)
- 3 TBSP (45g) Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Salt, Pepper, and Garlic Powder to taste
For the Dressing
- 1 Cup (200g) Caesar Dressing I used Brianna's
- ½ Cup (125g) Mayonnaise I used Sir Kensington's
Start the Pasta
Preheat oven to 400ºF (200ºC).
Bring a large pot of water (approximately 6 Cups and 1400ml) with 1 TSP of Salt to a boil. Add the penne pasta when ready and cook according to the directions on the packaging. Strain the pasta when it is ready.
While the water is heating, in a large mixing bowl, evenly coat the chopped broccoli head, onions, and garlic in olive oil. Place vegetables evenly on a baking sheet and season with salt and pepper to taste. Place vegetables in the oven and bake for 25 minutes until beautifully roasted and lightly charred. When done, leave the roasted vegetables in a warm place.
While the broccoli roasts, wash and pat dry the chicken breasts. Season both sides to taste with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Heat a large skillet with 2 TBSP of vegetable oil and sear both sides of the chicken on medium heat (approximately 5 minutes on each side) until both breasts are richly brown on both sides and evenly cooked throughout. Take the chicken out of the pan and set to the side in a warm place.
In the same pan the chicken was cooked in, lightly cook the baby spinach until bright green (should take no more than 2-3 minutes). Take the greens out of the pan, and set them aside in a warm place on top of paper towel or a clean dish towel to drain the excess water. When cool enough to handle, chop the spinach.
Make the Dressing
While the other ingredients are still cooking, mix the Caesar dressing and mayonnaise until fully combined.
Complete the Dish
Cut the chicken breasts into strips. In large mixing bowl, toss all of chicken, roast vegetables, cooked spinach, cooked penne, and dressings until evenly coated. Season with salt and pepper if desired.
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