I wrote recently about my many childhood babysitters, the women who watched me and my brother after school when my parents worked late. This recipe, for tetrazzini made with chicken or just lots of mushrooms, with a creamy, cheesy sauce, was inspired by Frida.

Frida had a large kitchen and spent lots of time in it. The smells of Turkish cooking scented her home with roasted garlic and caramelized eggplant, toasted nuts and buttery baklava. There was a perk to staying at Frida’s: If my brother and I finished our homework early enough, we’d get to play Ms. Pac-Man or Tetris (my then-favorite) on an old console in the TV room.

Sometimes I’d end up in the kitchen, too. Frida recruited my little kid hands to roll tiny meatballs, which were then simmered in a tomato sauce thick with onions. I loved watching her fingers stuff herbed rice into grape leaves, stack the fat sarma like bricks into a tall pot and let them steam until they turned tender and juicy.

Looking back, I’m ashamed I didn’t appreciate Frida’s food more. She was a marvelous cook, and I learned so much from watching her and tasting alongside her. But back then, what my brother and I wanted to eat more than anything was the stuff our friends at school said they ate for dinner: Macaroni and cheese from a box. Hot dogs. Frozen fish sticks. Sloppy Joes.

I was so desperate to fit in, I didn’t let myself enjoy the rich bounty all around me.

Frida was undeterred. She made almost everything we asked for. I’ll never forget the day she stirred together a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese. “This is really what you want?” she asked, an eyebrow arched. I knew there was creamy hummus in her fridge, warm flatbreads and hunks of feta on the counter. And still, I stuck my fork into the squishy orange pasta. Strange as it now sounds, I was convinced that liking it would make me acceptable in the eyes of my peers and help me fit into the fast-moving, Tetris-like puzzle of the world around me.

Frida always tasted these overly processed foods, but she almost never liked them. One afternoon, she showed me a recipe she’d cut out of an American cooking magazine. “I think we’ll have tetrazzini for dinner – what do you think?”

I had never heard of this dish, but I immediately liked that it sounded like “Tetris-zzini.” I studied the photo on the page and decided that it looked appropriately “American,” as it was served in a casserole and contained three types of dairy. While my brother played video games, Frida and I got to work. She sauteed mushrooms and onions, and I grated the cheese. She boiled the pasta, and I stirred the sauce. We tasted it before it went into the oven. “Hmm … needs pepper,” she said, cracking more on top before pouring it into a casserole dish.

After it came out of the oven, she portioned it into bowls. I watched her face as she took a bite. She nodded, and a small smile formed on her face.

“I think I like this one,” Frida said, surprising herself. I remember feeling a sense of calm that night while I waited for my mom to pick us up. At least in that moment in time, the pieces had fallen into place.

– – –

Tetrazzini

Total time: 45 mins, plus optional baking time

Servings: 4

Storage Notes: Leftovers may be refrigerated for up to 4 days.

This isn’t a traditional tetrazzini, which relies on a butter-and-flour roux, and lots of milk, for a bechamel sauce. Instead, I’ve called in a can of white beans, pureed in a blender. It eliminates the roux entirely and adds plenty of protein, which may encourage you to skip the meat here. I’ve also made it a one-pot meal. (If you want to bake it, use an ovenproof skillet so you don’t have to dirty a casserole dish.) Here are some ways to play around with it:

Feel free to skip the onion >> and add more garlic and mushrooms.

If you dislike mushrooms >> how about finely chopped butternut squash or sliced sun-dried tomatoes? You could also double down on the beans, and add 3/4 cup of cooked or canned (and drained) chickpeas, borlotti or black-eyed peas to the sauce.

Not into thyme? >> Use rosemary, marjoram or parsley.

No spaghetti in the pantry? >> Any pasta will work. Cook it according to the package instructions.

I like the sour cream stirred into the sauce >> but it’s optional, and goat cheese could add extra creaminess, too.

NOTE: To make this recipe vegan, omit the chicken and cheese, and add 1/4 cup of nutritional yeast and 1 teaspoon of dry mustard to the sauce.

INGREDIENTS

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for greasing, if desired

1 medium onion (8 ounces), diced

8 ounces mushrooms, preferably button, cremini or porcini, thinly sliced

1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt or table salt, divided

1 sprig fresh thyme, plus more for garnish if desired (may substitute 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme)

4 cloves garlic, minced or finely grated

1/4 cup dry white wine (optional)

8 ounces dry spaghetti

One (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, or about 1 pound of cooked cannellini beans in their broth

1 cup (3 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving if desired (see NOTE)

1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

8 ounces cooked chicken, pulled into bite-sized pieces (optional)

2 tablespoons sour cream (optional)

DIRECTIONS

In a deep, wide, lidded skillet over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil until it shimmers. Add the onion, mushrooms, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and the thyme and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion and mushrooms begin to caramelize, about 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Stir in the white wine, if using. Transfer the onion and mushroom mixture to a bowl.

To the same skillet, add the spaghetti, enough water to cover by 1 inch, and the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt. Cover and bring to a rolling boil. (This shouldn’t take long as the skillet will still be quite hot.) Cook until al dente, about 10 minutes. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water; drain the pasta, leaving some water clinging to it, and return it to the skillet. Keep warm over very low heat.

In the pitcher of a blender, combine 1/2 cup of reserved pasta water, the beans and their liquid, Parmesan and pepper and blend until very smooth. Pour the mixture over the pasta. Add the cooked onion and mushroom mixture, chicken, if using, and sour cream, if using. Stir until the pasta is well-coated in the sauce. If it seems a little dry, add more pasta water.

The pasta can be served family-style, right from the skillet or, if desired, baked in a casserole dish. If baking: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch square baking dish with olive oil. Transfer the pasta mixture to the greased dish, and sprinkle with additional Parmesan, if desired. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the cheese is mostly melted and the pasta is very hot but not dry. Serve family-style.

Nutrition information per serving (1 1/2 cups pasta and sauce, with chicken), based on 4 servings: Calories: 633; Total Fat: 22 g; Saturated Fat: 6 g; Cholesterol: 61 mg; Sodium: 1266 mg; Carbohydrates: 69 g; Dietary Fiber: 8 g; Sugars: 6 g; Protein: 39 g.

Nutrition information per serving (1 1/2 cups pasta and sauce, without chicken), based on 4 servings: Calories: 539; Total Fat: 17 g; Saturated Fat: 5 g; Cholesterol: 19 mg; Sodium: 1224 mg; Carbohydrates: 69 g; Dietary Fiber: 8 g; Sugars: 6 g; Protein: 24 g.

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.