I grew up in post-World War II America, as part of the Baby Boomer generation. Like most families of the time, my father worked while my mother stayed home to take care of the children. My brothers and I were lucky to have a loving family, homes where we felt safe, and while not rich, we never went hungry.
Casseroles became an American staple during the Depression when it was necessary to make inexpensive and filling meals. You could feed a large family with a minimum of expensive meats and poultry by combining them with pasta, rice, or potatoes, a few vegetables and a creamy sauce. After the invention of canned soups and other convenience foods, their popularity soared. Macaroni and Cheese, Tuna Noodle Casserole, and Chicken Pot Pies were seen on dinner tables across the nation.
In the early 1900’s one of the most popular opera singers in Europe and America was Luisa Tetrazzini. Born in Florence, Italy in 1862, Luisa’s remarkable coloratura soprano voice soared in the major opera houses around the globe. She made her American debut in San Francisco in 1905 and it always held a special place in her heart. After some legal entanglements blocked her from performing in New York, she declared, “I will sing in San Francisco … for I know the streets of San Francisco are free.”
On Christmas Eve 1910, Luisa stepped onto a platform at the corner of Market and Kearney and serenaded a crowd of two to three thousand enraptured San Franciscans. To mark the occasion, a local chef created a concoction of cooked pasta and mushrooms bathed in a creamy sauce and named it for the famous singer. No doubt this combination had been created many times before, but this time with the title of Chicken Tetrazzini, it became a national favorite.
While this recipe calls for chicken, you can easily substitute turkey or duck and have a similar dish. If you want you can make it with ham for a change of pace. If you want to make this vegetarian, just increase the amount mushrooms and add some chopped portobello, shiitake, or morels. If you like a spicier style of food, feel free to add in some chiles or hot sauce.
If you want to reduce the calories, you can use milk instead of the heavy cream and leave off the cheese topping. The dish won’t be as rich and creamy, but it will still be satisfying. For a leaner topping you can leave off the breadcrumbs and substitute chopped almonds or other nuts. It will give you a crunchy texture so important to complement the luscious cream sauce.
The ingredients of Chicken Tetrazzini are quite simple, but when combined they create a satisfying and filling meal perfect for parties, weeknight meals, or potluck suppers. The base sauce is one that every cook should know how to make, a simple White Sauce more formally known as Bechamel. This is a foundation for many recipes and one of the first things they teach at culinary school. If you are trying to use fewer canned goods for health reasons, this is a good substitute for creamed soups. It can be seasoned in many different ways and is incredibly versatile.
Enjoy this taste of my childhood. I hope it brings your family together over the dinner table where you can share what happened during your day. Who knows, this may be the beginning of a new family tradition … Tetrazzini Thursdays!
- 2 cups water
- 1/4 cup dry white wine or vermouth
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp whole peppercorns
- 2 tsp coarse salt
- 1 small onion, peeled
- 1 carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 1 lb skinless, boneless chicken breasts
- 12 oz wide egg noodles, fettuccine, or spaghetti
- Organic olive oil
- 2 tbsp butter, divided
- 2 red bell peppers, stem and seeds discarded, finely chopped
- 3 carrots, trimmed, split lengthwise, and finely chopped
- 3 stalks of celery, chopped finely
- 4 large shallots, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 clove fresh garlic, minced
- 1 lb white button or cremini mushrooms, ends trimmed, sliced thickly
- 2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
- 1/2 cup frozen petit peas (no need to thaw)
- 1-1/2 tsp salt
- 3/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 4 tbsp butter
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 2 cups homemade chicken stock or low-sodium canned chicken broth
- 1-3/4 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
- 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
- 1-1/2 cups panko breadcrumbs
- 2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
- Poach the Chicken: Combine the water, wine, bay leaves, peppercorns, salt and vegetables in a large stock pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes, carefully skimming off and discarding any foam and grease that accumulates on the surface, before adding the chicken. Cook the chicken just below a boil for 15 minutes.
- Move the pot to the back of the stove and cool the chicken in the poaching liquid. The chicken will finish cooking gently, leaving it moist and tender. When cool enough to handle, remove from the broth and cut into small pieces. Return chicken to the broth until needed for the casserole, straining before using. NOTE: You can use this poaching liquid for the chicken stock used to make the sauce if desired.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter a 9x13-inch baking dish and set aside.
- Cook the Pasta: Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil and cook pasta until just under al dente; length of cooking time will be determined by type of pasta you choose. Remember that the pasta will bake in the oven, so you don’t want to overcook it at this point. Drain in a colander, transfer to a large bowl, toss with 2 tsp olive oil and set aside.
- Prepare the Vegetables: Meanwhile, in a large skillet, combine 2 tbsp of the butter with 2 tbsp olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the bell peppers, carrots, and celery, cooking until soft, 3 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the shallots and garlic and cook for 30 seconds or until aromatic. Add the mushrooms and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are soft and have released their liquid, about 4 minutes. Add to the bowl with the pasta. Stir in the chopped chicken, peas, salt and pepper. Set aside.
- Make the White Sauce: In a saucepan melt the butter over medium heat. Sprinkle with the flour and cook, whisking constantly, for 2 minutes until the flour no longer smells raw. Whisk in the wine and chicken stock and cook, stirring, until smooth and thick, about 2 minutes. Whisk in the heavy cream and bring to just below a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, stirring regularly, until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, 15 to 20 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.
- Assemble Casserole: Pour sauce over chicken, pasta, and vegetables, tossing until evenly coated. Transfer mixture to the prepared baking dish and top with shredded cheese. In a small bowl toss together the Parmesan, panko, and parsley. Sprinkle seasoned breadcrumbs over the top. Bake, uncovered, until bubbly and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.
- Yield: about 10 servings