Today I needed comforting. Yes, it is cold and windy outside, but the real reason I needed comforting is I just lost an old friend. Today, Susan Callender Rettig died of lung cancer.
Susan had lived away from the Kansas City area for several years, but had been brought home to Hospice House several days ago. Four of us, all good friends of Susan’s since our junior high and high school days, were preparing to go tell her goodbye when the phone call came. We didn’t make it in time.
Feeling the need to be together, to talk about Susan and the old days, I called Jasper Mirabile of Jasper’s Restaurant and he and his staff were waiting for us when we arrived.
The comfort we needed was right there at our table. Sitting there on a busy weekday during lunch, we were made comfortable and given all the time we needed to be sad, to laugh, to remember. We drank Flyboy Red, my favorite wine, and eventually settled in to enjoy Jasper’s wonderful lunch.
As we ate the warm, comforting food, we decided the point had come to face facts and realize we need to make time for “us”. We need to be together, we need to be closer now than we have ever been. When we were young, we lost touch because of life…. .children, jobs…life. Now, 50 years after graduating from Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas, we need to remember “us”. My “girl friends” from high school are very important women now, important to me. I intend to keep them close from this point on.
Being me, a total “foodie”, I am sure I will be preparing dinner, or maybe lunch, for them soon. That is my therapy, feeding friends and family. Feeling the warmth and togetherness around the table is vital; the sound of laughter and small talk, hearing knives and forks against the dinnerware, smelling the aromas of the food, all add up to being together.
I am sure Susan will be there with us
It comes as no surprise to me that I immediately think of Italian food when I want to cook something comforting. Big bubbling casseroles of pasta and melted creamy cheeses with sprigs of fresh fragrant herbs tucked in here and there; maybe a spicy tomato sauce, or a rich green pesto. There must be lots of warm crusty bread and fresh creamery butter. Comfort food should never be low fat! That is a law!
One of my favorite casseroles is Chicken Tetrazinni. Apparently Chicken Tetrazinni was “invented” right here in the United States, not Italy. The year was 1910 – Tetrazinni is said to have been named for the Italian opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1941), called “The Florentine Nightingale.” She was extremely popular in the United States and was a star of the San Francisco Opera. She also was a long-time resident of San Francisco. It was a culinary tradition to name new dishes after personalities of the day, and Chefs of the 19th century used to flatter great prima donnas like Luisa Tetrazzini, making them the inspiration and then naming dishes for them.
A few historians say that master French chef, George Auguste Escoffier, invented this dish, but the dish is not mentioned in Escoffier's cookbooks and memoirs. According to Luisa Tetrazzini's 1921 autobiography, she was unaware of this fact.
Here is my favorite recipe, tried and true. I renamed it today in honor of my friend.
9 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
2 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 pound white mushrooms, sliced
1 large onion, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup Somerset Ridge Vineyard Chardonnay
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk, room temperature
1 cup heavy whipping cream, room temperature
1 cup chicken broth
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
12 ounces linguine
3/4 cup frozen peas (optional, but I love the additional color)
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
1 cup grated Parmesan
1/4 cup dried Italian-style breadcrumbs
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
2. Spread 1 tablespoon of butter over a 13 by 9 by 2-inch baking dish. Melt 1 tablespoon each of butter and oil in a deep large nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the chicken with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Add the chicken to the hot pan and cook until pale golden and just cooked through, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer the chicken to a plate to cool slightly. Coarsely shred the chicken into bite-size pieces and into a large bowl.
3. Meanwhile, add 1 tablespoon each of butter and oil to the same pan. Add the mushrooms and saute over medium-high heat until the liquid from the mushrooms evaporates and the mushrooms become pale golden, about 12 minutes. Add the onion, garlic, and thyme, and saute until the onion is translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until it evaporates, about 2 minutes. Transfer the mushroom mixture to the bowl with the chicken.
4. Melt 3 more tablespoons butter in the same pan over medium-low heat. Add the flour and whisk for 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk, cream, broth, nutmeg, remaining 1 3/4 teaspoons salt, and remaining 3/4 teaspoon pepper. Increase the heat to high. Cover and bring to a boil. Simmer, uncovered, until the sauce thickens slightly, whisking often, about 10 minutes.
5. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the linguine and cook until it is tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, about 9 minutes. Drain. Add the linguine, sauce, peas, and parsley to the chicken mixture. Toss until the sauce coats the pasta and the mixture is well blended.
6. Transfer the pasta mixture to the prepared baking dish. Stir the cheese and breadcrumbs in a small bowl to blend. Sprinkle the cheese mixture over the pasta. Dot with the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter. Bake, uncovered, until golden brown on top and the sauce bubbles, about 25 minutes.
Makes 8 servings
So when you are sad, or blue, prepare this recipe. Invite those you love and share this comforting meal with them.
Have a salad, crusty bread and butter and the rest of the bottle of chardonnay (plus one or two more in the refrigerator). Let yourself wallow in the love of this warm gooey casserole and that of your friends and family. Life will look a little brighter.