The apotheosis of comfort food: Turkey Tetrazzini

  • Turkey Tetrazzini PHOTO BY TINKY WEISBLAT 

  • Ingrediants — “mise en place” — for Turkey Tetrazzini. PHOTO BY TINKY WEISBLAT

  • Luisa Tetrazzini PHOTO COURTESY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS 

Published: 12/7/2021 1:38:26 PM
Modified: 12/7/2021 1:37:58 PM

At this time of year, I tend to serve a lot of comfort food to my guests. The sun hasn’t yet reached its solstice, but somehow in early December it seems darker and colder than it will later in the month … perhaps because later in the month we’ll have bright Christmas decorations everywhere to cheer us up.

Meanwhile, warm, nourishing food can offer a little cheer.

Interestingly, the term “comfort food” appears to be relatively new. The “Palm Beach Post” used it in 1966, and many sources cite singer/actress Liza Minelli as the first person to mention it at length. In 1970 Minelli told a reporter, “Comfort food is anything you just yum, yum, yum.”

I have always admired Minelli and now like her even more because of this apt turn of phrase. By the end of the 1970s “comfort food” had entered American dictionaries, and it was finally enshrined in the “Oxford English Dictionary” in 1997.

I don’t want to examine my devotion to comfort food too closely. According to “Psychology Today,” we seek out comfort food for a variety of reasons, including triggering the brain’s reward system, self-medication (ouch!), celebrating a special occasion, and evoking nostalgia.

My favorite comfort-food dish is one I tend to serve at this time of year. Once Thanksgiving is over, I do what I can with the leftovers. I make turkey sandwiches, lots and lots of turkey salad (delicious with cranberry sauce), turkey soup, and even a little impromptu semi-curry.

Eventually, I pop what is left of the turkey meat into the freezer. It doesn’t seem to last long there, but in a week or two I’m ready to face it again … and I’m ready to make my very favorite leftover-turkey dish, Turkey Tetrazzini.

Like Liza Minelli, Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1940) was a singing sensation. A coloratura soprano known as the Florentine Nightingale, she allegedly first took to the stage when she was only 3.

Tetrazzini made headlines at the age of 19 when, like the plucky heroine of a Depression-era Warner Bros. film, she stepped in for a prima donna who was under the weather and immediately became a star.

The plump yet elegant Tetrazzini was feted all over the world. No one is entirely certain who invented the casserole that bears her name, although many sources credit Ernest Arbogast. He was the chef at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, where Tetrazzini stayed while performing in that city in the early 1900s.

Tetrazzini (the dish, not the singer) isn’t hard to create. My guests always enjoy it; it’s comfort food with a little oomph. Sam Sifton of “The New York Times” wrote an article in praise of it in 2016, noting, “Tetrazzini can be irresistible, even to those with snobby tastes.”

Below is the version I made growing up with my mother. It is definitely simpler than what was originally served at the Palace Hotel, which apparently featured two French sauces, a velouté (a fancier version of my sauce below) and a Hollandaise (which strikes me as taking comfort food to a dangerous level).

Take comfort, but be sure to share; this dish is very rich.

Ingredients:

for the cream sauce:

2 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

1¼ cups robust turkey stock, warmed

1/2 cup cream

1/2 cup milk

Creole seasoning to taste (you may use just salt and pepper, but I like the zip of the seasoning)

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (plus a bit more if you like)

1/4 cup dry sherry

a handful of parsley, chopped

For assembly:

1/2 pound thin spaghetti, cooked

butter as needed to sauté vegetables (try to keep this to a minimum)

2 cups sliced mushrooms

1/2 bell pepper (I used an orange one most recently), diced

a light sprinkling of salt and pepper

2 cups pieces of cooked turkey

1 cup gently cooked peas (optional)

1 recipe cream sauce plus a little more milk if needed

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

a sprinkling of paprika

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

First, make the sauce. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat, and whisk in the flour. Cook, whisking constantly, for 2 minutes. Whisk in the turkey stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Boil, whisking constantly, for 2 minutes more.

Turn off the heat and stir in the milk and cream. Heat the mixture until it is warm; then remove it from the heat and stir in the seasoning, cheese, sherry, and chopped parsley. Set aside.

Next, create the casserole. Place the cooked spaghetti in a 2- to 3-quart casserole dish. Cover it with about half of the sauce.

Melt a small amount of butter in a frying pan and sauté the mushrooms and bell-pepper pieces until they soften. (Add a little more butter if you absolutely have to.) Dust them with salt and pepper.

Place the turkey on top of the spaghetti in the dish. Cover it with the sautéed vegetables and the peas (if you’re using those). Stir the mixture just a bit to make sure everything is moistened. Top the mixture with the remaining sauce.

If the tetrazzini looks a bit dry, add a bit more milk. Sprinkle the cheese on top of it, and throw on a little paprika for good measure.Cover the casserole dish and place it in the oven for 20 minutes; then uncover and cook until bubbly, about 10 minutes more. Serves 4.

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.


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