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~ Untangling an American Retro Classic: Tetrazzini ~

6a0120a8551282970b01bb07ae0c37970dWhen one writes a cooking blog long enough, one learns that sharing vintage recipes is as important as sharing trending, innovative new ones.  Experience has taught, "what's old is always new to someone", and cooks of all experience levels appreciate learning about it.  Experience has also taught: "what's old has often been lost to someone", as many times, these retro classics, which evoke fond memories, have sadly, been lost (grandma never taught it, shared it, or worse, never wrote it down), or tossed (instead of being handed down from generation to generation).

 About vintage recipes:  What's old is always new to someone,  and sadly,  what's old has often been lost to many. 

I know this to be true because by the time I was in my thirties, Tetrazzini had been around for a long time but I had never had the opportunity to taste it made the right way.  Mom didn't make it because dad wouldn't eat anything in a cream sauce.  Yea, I don't get it either, but that's that, "you're father won't eat that".  By the time I was in my thirties, the mid-1980's, the manufacturers of canned soup, cream cheese and mayonnaise had had a couple of decades to bastardize Tetrazzini recipes to the point of detestable, inedible glop.  The concept was so bad, I never had any desire to waste one moment trying to untangle the mess they made of this classic recipe.  

Then we went to a small wedding at The Toftrees Resort here in Happy Valley, PA.  Back in their day (the '80's and '90's), this was a swanky, upscale place with a highly-paid creative chef, a well-trained tuxedo-wearing waitstaff, and, an incredibly talented handsome guy who played the grand-piano.  After the champagne toast, the first course, pasta, arrived in small, classic-white, shell-shaped plates.  As the plates were placed in front of us, the waiter announced: "Seafood Tetrazzini".  Just wow, and I was inspired to embrace and make this dish in my own kitchen.

IMG_7811And, just in case "you've got cheatin' on your mind":    

IMG_7692A bit about Tetrazzini (teh-trah-ZEE-nee):  Tetrazzini is a rich dish combining cooked, stranded pasta (usually angel hair or thin spaghetti) tossed with chards of tender, cooked poultry (usually all-white chicken or turkey breast) or pieces of succulent seafood (never red meat) enrobed in a sherry-cream Parmesan-cheese sauce.  Lightly sautéed mushrooms (a requirement for the dish) get tossed in, along with some optional steamed peas and carrots too.  

Each individual-sized dish, or the entire casserole, gets sprinkled with sliced almonds and more grated Parmesan, then broiled (individual dishes) or baked (a casserole) until a crunchy, bubbly, golden top forms. The airy combination of almonds and Parmesan (not heavy breadcrumbs) causes strands of exposed pasta to crisp up too, which makes this rich dish more charming.  

All food historians agree that even though the dish contains pasta it is not Italian.  It is an all-American concoction.

All food historians agree on one thing: this dish is not Italian, it is an American concoction named after the Italian opera star Luisa Tetrazzini.  It is said to have been invented for her in 1908-1910 by chef Ernest Arbogast at The Palace Hotel in San Francisco, CA, where it is said she was either a regular guest or a long-time resident of the hotel.  I can find no specific documentation to say the dish prepared for her was made with poultry, as seafood, which is common to San Francisco, would make more sense.  A follow-up to this story is:  Luisa then gave the recipe for Spaghetti Tetrazzini to Louis Paquet, chef de cuisine at The McAlpin Hotel on Harold Square in NYC (the largest hotel in the world when it opened in 1912), who made famous a chicken-based version. To muddle the dish's history up a bit, in October of 1908, Good Housekeeping magazine made references to Tetrazzini being served "in a restaurant on 42nd street" -- The Knickerbocker Hotel in NYC, located on the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street claims the rights to the recipe as well.

Tetrazzini = Stranded Pasta (Spaghetti) NOT Egg Noodles!

IMG_7451The dish took a slow downhill slide after that.  Spin-offs started turning it into a casserole made of of leftover poultry or canned tuna, which is totally, completely understandable, Americans love their casseroles.  I have no ax to grind with that, it's tasty and family-friendly, but it was not what the elegant Ms. Tettrazzini had in mind.   Read on, because the worst was yet to come.  The cream of mushroom soup, cream cheese and mayonnaise versions that replaced the sherry-cream Parmesan-cheese sauce:  this was the death of the iconic dish.  

One last item:  Tetrazzini is made with stranded pasta/macaroni (any width will do but angel hair or spaghetti is most common), not egg noodles.  Egg noodles (a different product) = a noodle dish or a noodle casserole (example:  tuna noodle casserole) -- it's not Tetrazzini.  Got it? Good.

IMG_7724^I'm making my Shrimp Tetrazzini today (poultry may be substituted)!^

I'm making shrimp Tetrazzini today.  It's my favorite, with chicken and turkey Tetrazzini coming in at a close, creamy second and third.  I don't make my Tetrazini using leftovers of any kind, but, if it's turkey Tetrazzini you grew up eating and are craving after Thanksgiving, by all means, use your leftover turkey (I won't call the food police), but try to stick to the tender, all-white breast meat.  That said, I really hope you'll give my method for making this dish a try.  It gets made in five seriously easy parts (four of them on the stovetop):  boiling pasta; simmering shrimp; sautéeing vegetables; making sherry-cream Parmesan-cheese sauce, and, topping and baking.    

Part One:  Boiling the Pasta

IMG_7454For the pasta:

1  pound spaghetti, broken in half

1 tablespoon salt, for seasoning pasta water

6  tablespoons salted butter

6  tablespoons finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

3/4  teaspoon coarsely-ground or cracked black pepper (not fine ground)

~ Step 1.  In an 8-quart stockpot bring 5 quarts of water to a boil and add the 1 tablespoon of salt to the water.  Break the pasta in half and add it it to the boiling water.  Give pasta a quick stir.

IMG_7465 IMG_7459~ Step 2.  Cook spaghetti until slightly less than al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain well and return to stockpot.

~ Step 3.  Add the butter, Parmesan and pepper.  Toss until butter is melted and pasta is evenly coated. Transfer to a large bowl & set aside:

IMG_7479Part Two: Simmering the Shrimp  

IMG_7482For the shrimp (or chicken):

6   cups water

2  cups white wine

4  medium-sized dried bay leaves

juice from 1  lemon, cut in half 

2  pounds large shrimp (31-40 count), peeled and deveined, tails off, about 1 1/2 pounds after peeling (chicken filets cut into 3/4" chunks may be substituted)

Note:  To answer your question, "yes, when I make chicken Tetrazzini, I do simmer the chicken in the same lemon/bay mixture as the shrimp."  Chicken tastes lovely cooked in this manner.

IMG_7496 IMG_7489~ Step 1.  In the same 8-quart stockpot bring the water, wine, lemon juice, lemon rinds and bay leaves to a boil.  Add the shrimp (or the chicken).

~ Step 2.  Start timing immediately and cook for 3 minutes.  By the time 3 minutes are up, the water should be boiling.  Drain immediately and rinse in cold water to halt cooking. Sqeeze any remaining juice from the lemons over all.  Toss into the spaghetti and set aside:

IMG_7497Part Three:  Sautéing the Vegetables 

IMG_7511For the vegetables:

4  tablespoons salted butter

1  pound white mushroom caps, sliced

3/4  teaspoon garlic powder

1/2  teaspoons sea salt

2  cups frozen peas and diced carrots combo, unthawed

~ Step 1.  Slice the mushrooms as directed.  In a 3 1/2-quart chef's pan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the mushrooms.

6a0120a8551282970b01b8d092479f970c 6a0120a8551282970b01b7c7083b88970b~ Step 2. Add garlic powder & salt, increase heat to medium-high & cook until 'shrooms are losing moisture & mixture is juicy, about 6 minutes.  Add frozen vegetetables.  Cook until almost no moisture remains, 5-6 minutes. Stir into pasta mixture and set aside:

IMG_7535Part Four:  Making the Sherry-Cream Parmesan-Cheese Sauce

IMG_75504  tablespoons salted butter

4  tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/2  teaspoon sea salt

1/2  teaspoon cayenne pepper

3  cups heavy cream + up to 1/2 cup whole milk, to control consistency

2  cups finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

2-4  tablespoons dry sherry

IMG_7563~ Step 1.  In the same chef's pan, melt butter over low heat.  Increase heat to medium and add the flour, salt and cayenne pepper.  Using a large spoon or a small whisk, stirring constantly, cook until mixture is thick, smooth and bubbly, about 30 seconds.  It happens fast.  

IMG_7573Add the cream, in a slow stream, stirring constantly.

IMG_7587~ Step 2. Continue to cook until smooth, thickened and drizzly, about 2 minutes.  Turn off the heat.

IMG_7586Sprinkle in the Parmesan. Stir until mixture is smooth and ribbonlike, adding milk if necessary.  Add the sherry, to taste. You will have 3-3 1/2 cups sauce. Add and toss into pasta mix:

IMG_7642Part Five:  Topping and Baking:

IMG_76503/4  cup sliced almonds

3/4  cup finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

~ Step 1.  Transfer Tetrazzini mixture to a 13" x 9" x 2" casserole that has been sprayed with no-stick cooking spray.  Without pressing down on top of the mixture, use a fork to evenly distribute the mixture.

IMG_7663 IMG_7659Sprinkle the almonds evenly over the top, followed by the Parmesan cheese.

~ Step 2.  Bake, uncovered, on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven 25-30 minutes.  Top will be a nice golden brown and casserole will be bubbling around the sides.

Remove from oven & allow to rest 5-10 minutes.  Serve: 

IMG_7712From the first seductive scoop to the last luscious bite...

IMG_7725... real-deal Tetrazzini is some kind of wonderful!

IMG_7772Untangling an American Retro Classic:  Tetrazzini:  Recipe yields 12-16 servings.

Special Equipment List:  8-quart stockpot; colander; microplane grater; cutting board; chef's knife; 3 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight deep sides, preferably nonstick; nonstick spatula; salad servers, or two large spoons, for tossing pasta throughout recipe; 13" x 9" x 2" casserole

IMG_5445Cook's Note:  I admit that most people associate tetrazzini with Thanksgiving because it's a tasty way to use up that leftover turkey. For me, I find that shrimp tetrazzini is a festive go-to dish to serve for a casual holiday brunch or lunch. And, remember: ~ Save those Shrimp Shells!!! Because I Said So!!!  (How to Make a Basic Shrimp Stock a la Melanie ~.can be found in Categories 15, 15 or 22. I'm never without some in my freezer during the holiday season.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)


Thanks Mel! I knew I was asking the right person!

Marilyn. How sad, but, thankfully these folks have a good support system with friends like yourself. A similar situation happened in our neighborhood. We carefully organized it, taking into consideration, for example, MaryAnn's likes, dislikes and love of chocolate. Food was delivered twice a week over a six week period of time (so as not to overload them with more than they could eat), and, we actually looked over the sign-ups and schedule to be sure it was a nice mix of things. The three meals I signed up to take were: stuffed shells w/salad (a casserole), meatloaf (a dinner with mashed potatoes, gravy & vegetable + a meatloaf for the freezer) and chicken vegetable soup (with 4 full containers for her freezer). My neighbor Carol, who loves to bake made three desserts to go with my meals. It takes teamwork, and, I am happy to report, MaryAnn is doing great!

Mel! I have a friend undergoing surgery tomorrow for breast cancer :(!
I have been asked to participate in a "meal train" for her, post op.
Her husband has recently suffered a stroke, and they just put down their 15 year old poodle! Yeah, it sucks. Many folks are doing something with chicken. I really like this recipe you shared. My question, do you have any thoughts on making meals such as this for a sick friend? Sometimes, you just have to make a meal for a friend in need.
Love Ya,

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