The Tetrazzini family of dishes is hard to classify. Despite being a kind of baked pasta dish with an Italian name, it is most definitely not Italian. In fact, it’s not really even Italian-American, if you define that term as meaning the cooking of the Italian diaspora in America. In reality, they’re all-American dishes that happen to be named after an Italian opera singer, Luisa Tetrazzini, the enormously popular “Florentine Nightingale” whose career spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are various stories about the origin of the dish. One story, probably the best known, has it that the dish was invented by Ernest Arbogast, then chef at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, California, where the singer lived for many years. Another popular story traces the dish’s origins to an Italian chef at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York, on the occasion of her triumphal performance of the 1910 New York debut of La Traviata.
Like any famous dish, there are any number of recipes for making Tetrazzini dishes. The main common denominators are poultry or seafood, mixed with pasta and a creamy sauce and baked until bubbly and brown. Chicken Tetrazzini was a favorite in our family growing up, and it was and always will be one of my favorite comfort foods, especially when the weather turns cold. Tetrazzini a great way to use chicken leftover from making broth. It is also a great way to use up that leftover Thanksgiving turkey, using the carcass to make turkey broth and the meat for the casserole. The recipe that follows is my updated version of the family recipe from the 1960s that—like a lot of American cooking from that period—called for canned “cream of” soups. I’ve replaced that with a velouté, as in the older recipes.
Serves 4-6 people
- 300-250g (10-12 oz) pasta (see Notes)
- 350g (12 oz) mushrooms (see Notes), thinly sliced
- Olive oil
- 300-400g (1o-14 oz) cooked turkey, cut into largish cubes (or other poultry or fish, see Notes)
- Salt and pepper
For the velouté:
- 2-3 celery stalks, cut into small cubes
- 1 small onion, finely minced
- 60g (6 Tbs) flour
- 90g (6 Tbs) butter (or a mixture of butter and oil)
- 700ml (3 cups) of homemade broth, made from chicken or turkey
- 350 ml (1 cup) sour cream
For the topping:
- Grated Parmesan cheese
- Breadcrumbs (optional)
Put the pasta on to boil in well-salted water. Cook until very al dente.
While the pasta is cooking, make your velouté. Sauté the celery and onion in the butter, in a large saucepan, until it begins to soften. Add the flour and continue to sauté for a minute or two. Then add the hot broth, stirring vigorously with a whisk. As the broth comes to a simmer, it should thicken into a creamy sauce. Let the sauce simmer for 2-3 minutes, then remove it from the heat. Whisk in the sour cream until the mixture is perfectly smooth and homogenous. Taste and adjust for seasoning.
Also while the pasta is cooking, sauté the mushrooms in the olive oil. Add a pinch of salt along the way; this will help the mushrooms give off their liquid. Once the liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms begin to brown, they should be done.
Once the pasta is cooked, drain it well and pour it into a large mixing bowl. Add the velouté, cooked turkey and the sautéed mushrooms, and mix everything together well.
Pour the mixture into a well-buttered baking dish. Top with grated Parmesan cheese, some breadcrumbs if you like and dot bits of butter here and there.
Bake in a moderate (180C/350F) oven for about 45 minutes, or until the dish is bubbling and the top is nice and brown. Most (but not quite all) of the sauce should have evaporated. Let the dish rest for 15-20 minutes before serving.
There are lots of variations on this basic theme. In our house, the usual pasta was spaghetti, either left whole or broken into short lengths. A short pasta like penne would also work. And, personally, I really like old-fashioned egg noodles. As for the mushrooms, plain old button mushrooms are classic and will do fine, but I like to use those packages of mixed, pre-sliced mushrooms you can find these days; they’re convenient and make for a more interesting dish.
As mentioned, leftover chicken works as well as turkey. And boiled poultry does as well (or better) than roasted. Some people claim that the original dish was made with salmon, which I haven’t tried. I have tried, on the other hand, canned tunafish, in which case you have a classic American tuna casserole. The amount of poultry or fish, by the way, doesn’t really matter all that much, so if you have extra leftovers (or less than this recipe calls for) no worries.
The fancier versions of Tetrazzini call for adding some white wine or sherry to the velouté, and it is not uncommon to add some peas to the pasta mixture along with the sautéed mushrooms. That adds a bit of color as well.
The dish can be made ahead. In fact, I think that Tetrazzini is even better reheated the day after it’s made. You can eat it right away, but like any baked pasta dish, it helps to let it rest for a while before you tuck into it. The rest allows the dish to firm up a bit and for the flavors to shine through.