When a few years ago the one-time British culinary “Wunderkind”, Jamie Oliver embarked on his trip to Italy he was told by an elderly couple at his parent’s Pub in Essex, that he must make sure to cook “Turkey Tetrazzini”. He had to admit of never having heard of this recipe. So he rode the waves of the Internet and found out all what there is to know about this particular dish. He discovered that this dish, which goes by various different names (Chicken-, Turkey-, Tuna- Tetrazzini), is also quite often simply referred to as a “Pasta Bake” – a name which I personally hate.
Ok, I admit, this is a very simple, unassuming and very difficult to photograph dish, but – although by many regarded as an ’old-fashioned’ dish by now – it has managed to get people around the world asking in the Oliver Twist way “….. Please, Sir, Can I have more……” because it is such a delicious dish, elegant and yet comfort food in one. But let’s face it, who really cares here if it is old-fashioned or not, nouvelle cuisine, neu, modern, hip, hop or however you want to call it – like good clothes, which never really go out of fashion completely – in fact only just sort of hibernate for a few years and then surface again as the latest inspiration of the new hot Designer of the moment. Food also has a period of certain popularity, which comes and goes. Who in the UK does not remember the one Christmas and the Oh so popular Delia Smith and her Cranberry’s!?
There must be numerous variations to this recipe, but I give you my own trusted version which I have been serving at my table around the world for so long now.
But coming back to the, for me at least, ever young “Chicken Tetrazzini” the story, according to Wikipedia goes that this dish is named after the Italian opera star, Luisa Tetrazzini and it is widely believed to have been invented ca. 1908-1910 by Ernest Arbogast, then chef at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, California, where Tetrazzini was a long-time resident.
When “in my previous life” I lived for 4 ½ years in Western Nigeria, (European) food items were then extremely difficult to come by, even on “the black market”. Chicken though I was able to get as well as the occasional delivery of spaghetti, which I unashamedly sort of stockpiled for entertainment purposes. Some other small essential items were brought back from the UK in my suitcase. And so, out of necessity, this dish soon became my own ‘piece de resistance’ when we had to entertain foreign VIP’s.
One of my favourite visitors and guest at my own dinner table was the person in the photograph below.
Sir Harold Macmillan, 1st Earl of Stockton. He was Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1957 to 1963.
I was really blessed on the whole with the nicer kind of visiting VIP’s unlike some of my peers. The majority of them were easy going, kind, appreciative of the difficult situations and places we had to deal with, the non availability of sometimes just basic food stock, endless power cuts for days (and of course no generator!). Sometimes even a “bread-and-butter” letter and/or a small thank you gift like flowers, chocolates, books or even small treasured items like Malden Salt reached me and the letters in particular meant a lot, just a few kind words. Remember, those were the days prior to Smartphone’s, iPods etc. (just think about it – how did we ever manage as well as we did without all those gadgets?!) In fact I learned early on “in my previous” life that some of the nicest and most appreciative and considered guests are the ones who are really very important in their private and professional life and the others, who have just put up that facade, are the real – and how shall I put it elegantly – ……pain in the neck!!
Sir Harold was a true gentleman and one of the least big headed people passing through my life. He took time out and taught me how best to grow long green beans and tomatoes in our climate. He taught me how best to train the passion-fruit vine over my pergola and the days he stayed with us he treated me less of his temporary hostess but more of a daughter which, yes, I enjoyed.
This dish can be prepared in advance and easily and quickly finished off in the last minutes. To make life easier, I suggest just do what I normally do. I do not have exact measurements; I just go by the “look/like/use”.
4 skinless and boneless chicken breasts cut into nice thin slices
App. 1 lb of button mushrooms, wiped and sliced
1-2 large onions, not too finely chopped, like the bite
5-8 cloves garlic, minced
Some fresh (or dried) Parsley
Some fresh (or dried) thyme
3 Tbsp Olive Oil
8-10 Tbsp butter
Salt, black pepper and grated nutmeg to taste
A good glug of dry white wine (delicious, but optional)
Some flour for thickening
4 cups of good milk
1 cup whipping cream
1 cup good chicken broth (cube)
Enough breadcrumbs mixed with grated parmesan (or other sharp cheese) enough to cover the finished dish
1 whole pack of either spaghetti or linguini
Heat up your oven to high.
Butter a large baking dish (Oven-to-table) and keep aside
In a large wok or pan melt some butter with some olive oil, when hot add chicken and cook over medium heat for 3-4 minutes, keep stirring. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. When done take out with slotted spoon and keep aside. Now add all your mushrooms and sauté over medium heat until the mushroom liquid has evaporated, maybe 2 minutes. Now add everything else like onion, garlic and the thyme m sauté for another 6-8 minutes or so, keep stirring. When it becomes dry add the wine or some of your chicken stock. Add more butter and flour and for a couple of minutes whisk everything together to avoid lumps. Bring your heat to high and whisk in cream, broth, milk, nutmeg. When this starts to boil, uncover and simmer on very low flame until your sauce starts to thicken. Don’t leave this alone now for the next 10 minutes, whisk frequently. When done, add to the chicken mixture.
In the meantime cook your pasta in a large pot of salted water. When done, drain very quickly and add pasta to your chicken- and sauce mixture. Mix very well and put everything into the baking dish. Top with the breadcrumb/cheese mixture and leave in the oven for app. 25 minutes, or until a nice light brown crust starts to show.
So tell me, friends, what is your favourite version of this dish? I am always open to suggestions.