In Praise of Pasta and a Recipe for Turkey Tetrazzini

Saturday night we went with some friends to a fancy Italian restaurant and I sampled five different types of pasta. Five pastas! At a time so close to Thanksgiving, when everyone is worrying about turkey, their favorite mashed potato recipe and stuffing, I thought it would be fun to write about pasta. It’s always been my favorite comfort food. I have no Italian ancestry, but then the Italians were not the originators of the noodle. According to family history, my Polish Ashkenazi Great-Grandmother made delicious homemade egg noodles. She served them with roasted chicken and sauerkraut.

Pasta dishes have been enjoyed by many cultures around the globe for thousands of years. According to food historians, noodles made of rice and wheat flour have Chinese origins dating back to the Chang dynasty — 1700–1100 B.C. As early a 4 thcentury B.C. there is archeological evidence of pasta being consumed in geographic parts of Italy, then occupied by the Etruscans. The 13 thcentury merchant Marco Polo may have brought back a sampling of unusual noodles and spices back to Italy, but the idea of eating cooked dough was not entirely new.

Homemade pasta, made in your kitchen, is the best; but it is a slow and laborious process unless you have a pasta machine. I used to have one, but the problem was all the work that went into cleaning all those little holes and seeing the machine was thoroughly washed each time I used it, so I gave it away. If I have a craving for fresh pasta, the fresh version can be purchased in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. I’ve also found that many of the dried pastas, are pretty good. The most important thing is not to overcook them. Al dente is my preference. Mushy pasta is not good.

The most important component of a pasta dish is the sauce. This is probably why I spend so much time making fresh tomato sauces from the tomatoes in our garden. A Cream sauce flavored with mushrooms, onions, or other vegetables can be delightful too, My favorite pasta served last night was the shell shaped pasta filled with bits of acorn squash in a cream sauce, called Orecchiette con Zucca di Stagione.

Pasta comes in many shapes and sizes, and includes lasagna, where the noodles are layered between cheeses, meat and tomato sauce, and possibly layers of vegetables. I like to add a layer of spinach in one of my versions. And then there is Manicotti or Cannelloni which can be stuffed with ground meat, ricotta cheese or a combination of both.

Circling back to Thanksgiving, if you are hosting, what are you planning to do with your leftovers? I always make my own version of Turkey Tetrazzini. The dish is named after a famous Italian Opera star. Food historians differ as to whether the recipe came from her kitchen, but the idea of turkey in a creamy sauce loaded with cheese and served over pasta is a good one. The traditional version calls for baking it in the oven and adding cream cheese or sour cream and peas. My version is not as rich.

In a large deep frying pan I sauté some minced garlic in olive oil along with a generous amount of mushrooms, chopped green pepper, and chopped celery. Add leftover turkey that has been cut into small bite size pieces and saturate with enough chicken broth to moisten everything in the frying pan. (About ½ to 1 cup depending on how much turkey). Turn it down to a low simmer.

In a medium size heavy saucepan melt one tablespoon of butter and mix in one heaping tablespoon of flour to create a roux. Gradually add a half a cup of milk (or dairy substitute) and cook on low stirring frequently until nice and thick. Mix in approximately a ½ cup of grated mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. This creamy sauce will then be added to the frying pan with turkey and vegetables. Add basil and oregano to taste. If you want more creamy sauce, double the amounts.

Serve over cooked pasta. I prefer penne for this dish, but rigatoni or fettucine are also good choices. A green tossed salad is a great accompaniment along with hearty bread. Want to refer to my recipe for tomato sauce made from cherry tomatoes, click here.

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