As our community begins to slowly open back up, there are many of us who still plan to limit unnecessary social contact for a while before easing back into our busy routines.

When it comes to food, this means planning our weekly menus in advance, shopping to a well-crafted list and utilizing the ingredients already in our pantry.

This is not always a perfect practice. In the early-pandemic days, I found myself in the throes of reactive panic-shopping. In addition to stockpiling standard end-of-times staples like pasta, beans and whole grains, I also ended up buying more peanut butter than we’ll eat in a year, and other impulse items that I had never before considered essential.

I am certain that some of my early purchases were motivated by the stark, empty shelves where many of my typical grocery items were supposed to be. Did I really need two large jars of sliced banana peppers? Probably not, but they were in full stock, so in the cart they went.

A few weeks ago, the weather was nice enough to grill, so I pulled some chicken breasts from the freezer to serve for dinner that night. No one in my family was excited at the prospect of grilled chicken breasts, as they can often become dry and tough when cooked on the grill. I needed a marinade to ensure that the chicken was flavorful, juicy and tender. I scoured my pantry and ended up with what I now call my Pandemic Pepper Marinade.

Grill the chicken over high, direct heat for about five minutes per side until fully cooked. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Grill the chicken over high, direct heat for about five minutes per side until fully cooked. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

In addition to my lifetime supply of banana peppers, my pantry raid also yielded a jar of roasted red peppers, and these two ingredients form the base of flavor for this robust sauce. Other staples include olive oil, garlic, dried oregano, Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, honey and fresh or dried basil. I added one anchovy to give the sauce a savory, umami quality, but a splash of Worcestershire sauce would also work.

Roasted red and mild banana peppers are the main flavor components in Sarah's Pandemic Pepper Marinade. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Roasted red and mild banana peppers are the main flavor components in Sarah's Pandemic Pepper Marinade. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

I threw these ingredients into my food processor and blitzed them into a tangy, flavorful sauce that would also work well with firm fish and seafood, like swordfish, tuna and shrimp, either as a marinade or dipping sauce. The sauce was such a hit that Tony and Gio begged me to make it again over Memorial Day weekend, this time with chicken skewers.

I had planned to slice whole chicken breasts into smaller pieces; however, other than drumsticks, the only chicken available on my last grocery run was chicken tenders, with which I had no experience. My careful plans were happily upended by this substitution, as the tenders were far superior to the grilled chicken breasts. They cooked more quickly and were far more tender, succulent and juicy, and the leftovers remained so, even two days later.

Chicken tenders are better than breasts for this recipe, and often easier to find at the market these days. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Chicken tenders are better than breasts for this recipe, and often easier to find at the market these days. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

I marinated the tenders for three hours before threading them with wooden skewers, which should always be soaked in water first to prevent burning. We grilled the chicken over high heat for about five minutes on each side, basting them with more sauce as they cooked.

With sounds of lawn mowers and birds chirping happily in the background, we enjoyed our Pandemic Pepper Chicken Skewers with grilled Buttertop White Bread and extra sauce on the side for dipping.

The tenders are covered with Pandemic Pepper Sauce and marinated for two to four hours before grilling to ensure a succulent result. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
The tenders are covered with Pandemic Pepper Sauce and marinated for two to four hours before grilling to ensure a succulent result. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Thread each tender onto the skewer like a stitch to ensure they don't fall off on the grill. Sarah Nasello / The Forum
Thread each tender onto the skewer like a stitch to ensure they don't fall off on the grill. Sarah Nasello / The Forum

A different kind of chicken for a different, and hopefully delicious, kind of summer.

Red Pepper Grilled Chicken Skewers

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Makes: 12 chicken skewers

Ingredients:

1 cup roasted red peppers, jarred or homemade, chopped into pieces

½ cup banana peppers, chopped into pieces (I use deli-sliced pepper rings, mild or hot)

2 cloves garlic, chopped

½ teaspoon dried oregano flakes

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 ½ teaspoons honey

6 to 8 large basil leaves, chopped (about 2 to 3 tablespoons, or 1 ½ tablespoons dried basil leaves)

Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes

1 anchovy, finely chopped (or a splash of Worcestershire sauce)

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon kosher salt (if using anchovy, taste before adding salt)

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

12 chicken tenders

Directions:

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment, add the peppers and garlic and pulse until coarsely chopped, about 6 to 8 times. Add the oregano, Dijon mustard, vinegar, tomato paste, honey, basil, red pepper flakes and anchovy (or Worcestershire sauce) and pulse again until well combined, 6 to 8 times.

Turn the processor on and slowly add the olive oil through the feed tube. Keep processing for another minute until fully emulsified.

Taste and add salt and pepper as desired. Sauce may be made and refrigerated up to 1 week in advance of using. Use as a marinade for chicken or firm, flaky fish and seafood (like shrimp, swordfish, mahi-mahi), or as a dipping sauce for grilled bread, shrimp, kebabs, chips, etc.

To assemble the skewers: Place the chicken tenders in a baking dish and sprinkle the top of each with salt and pepper. Transfer some of the red pepper sauce to a small bowl for dipping, if desired, then pour the remaining sauce over the tenders. Cover the dish and refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours.

If using wooden skewers, soak them in water for 30 minutes before using to prevent burning. Thread each chicken tender with a skewer then place in a baking dish. Before grilling, make sure that the grill is clean, hot and brushed with oil to prevent sticking.

Place the chicken skewers directly on the grill over high heat. Cook for 5 minutes, brushing with more sauce halfway through, and then flip the skewers over and repeat until the chicken is fully cooked and opaque, or until an internal temperature of 165 degrees is achieved.

Place cooked chicken skewers in a clean dish and serve with dipping sauce on the sauce.

Recipe Time Capsule:

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“Home with the Lost Italian” is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owned Sarello’s in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello@gmail.com.