Mom’s Chicken Tetrazzini
Nothing says comfort better than Chicken Tetrazzini. In my childhood home, ours was made from a freshly stewed hen, the meat carefully pulled from the bones and shredded, then tossed with warm vermicelli, a Parmesan cream sauce, and baked until bubbling around the edges. It was company fare or maybe served on your birthday if you asked nicely.
Just the sound of the word "Tetrazzinii" evoked glamour and sophistication in what didn't feel like a very sophisticated South. The story for this recipe goes that it was named for Italian opera soprano Luisa Tetrazzini in the early 1900s. She was known as the "Florentine Nightingale" of music and visited America on tour. Her wildly popular, open-air concerts in New York and San Francisco attracted thousands of devoted fans. And either at the old Knickerbocker Hotel in New York or the Palace Hotel in San Francisco - it is still debated which was the originator - the chef is said to have created chicken and cream sauce atop pasta in honor of Tetrazzini's visit. Chefs often named dishes on their menus after celebrities. And from that day on, the comforting chicken casserole with the Italian name would become a part of the American home recipe box and morph into the recipe we know and love today.
A crowd pleaser, Tetrazzini can be made with either chicken or turkey. You can cook the chicken the old-fashioned way, by simmering a whole chicken or hen (slightly larger, better flavor) in water flavored with onion and bay leaves, salt, and pepper, until done. Let the chicken cool, then remove the meat from the bone, and reserve about three cups of it.
Or, use leftover roasted turkey. That's when I love to make Tetrazzini — after Thanksgiving or Christmas — and I stash it in the freezer to heat up for dinner in the cold-weather months ahead. Chicken seems to be the original ingredient over turkey, but it doesn't really matter. The real star is the sauce.
That's what pulls the ingredients together — a simple white sauce, made by melting butter, stirring in flour, and then whisking in chicken broth and cream. You create what the French call a bechamel, or most home cooks call a white sauce. And when you add grated Parmesan, salt, pepper, and a dash of sherry, you might as well call it heaven.
MOM’S CHICKEN TETRAZZINI RECIPE:
Makes 8 to 10 servings | Prep: 30 minutes | Bake: 25 to 30 minutes
8 ounces thin spaghetti or vermicelli
3 cups (12 ounces) chopped or shredded cooked chicken
4 tablespoons butter
2 cups (8 ounces) sliced mushrooms
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
2 tablespoons sherry
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (4 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese, divided use
1/4 cup sliced green olives
1/4 cup (or more as desired) chopped toasted pecans, for garnish
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Break the spaghetti noodles in half. Stir in the spaghetti and 1 teaspoon salt. Reduce the heat to medium-high, and cook the spaghetti, uncovered, according to package directions until just done, 6 to 7 minutes. Drain the spaghetti well in a colander, shaking it to remove excess water. Place it in a mixing bowl, add the chicken, and toss to combine. Set aside.
Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Place the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When melted, add the mushrooms, onion, and celery and cook, stirring, until soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and add the flour. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the chicken broth and cook, stirring, until it begins to thicken, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the cream, and stir until combined. Add the sherry, season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook stirring until the sauce comes just to a boil, about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 1/2 cup of the Parmesan and olives. Pour the sauce into the bowl with the chicken and noodles and stir to combine well.
Transfer the chicken mixture to a 13- by 9-inch or large round ceramic or glass casserole dish. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan. Bake the casserole until it is bubbling, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, let it rest 10 minutes, then scatter with the toasted pecans and serve.