Moving can bring out superpowers in people.
Last week, as my family moved to a larger abode only a stone’s throw away, I witnessed my own sweet, gentle husband Erik lifting large sofas, bulky bookshelves and heavy chest of drawers all by himself. I was especially impressed after not finding a single empty can of spinach in the trash.
Granted, I was no slouch myself. For once I felt no guilt whatsoever about not following any sort of workout regimen because I was doing enough lifting, carrying and squatting, along with scrubbing, sweeping and disinfecting, to humble the most diehard crossfit enthusiast. It doesn’t happen very often, maybe every solstice or so, but I was feeling my oats. I was working hard. Real hard.
It all changed when my doorbell rang.
We opened the door to the beaming smile of a lovely new neighbor. She was stopping by to introduce herself and her four children and to welcome us to the neighborhood. After exchanging pleasantries and learning a little bit about each other, I noticed her looking over at my kitchen. I’m presuming she identified it as my kitchen anyway, since boxes and loose odds and ends were covering every piece of precious countertop real estate. “Say,” she mentioned, “I just made a huge batch of chicken spaghetti and was wondering, since you’re in the middle of a move and all, if you’d be interested in having me drop some off to you. That way you won’t have to worry about dinner.”
Chicken spaghetti? I asked. Embarrassingly, I had never heard of it. She described it as a pasta and chicken-based casserole containing lots of cheese and some vegetables to boot. It was only 3 p.m. or so, but as she described the dish my stomach started grumbling with phantom hunger pangs.
We of course replied that we would love some, if it wasn’t too much trouble. Our visit ended soon thereafter and Erik and I quickly became absorbed once more in moving drudgery and thought no more about it. Until, that is, we returned home with another car-full of boxes, princess costumes, and Styrofoam Halloween tombstones.
There, on top of a box near the kitchen, we found not just a huge container of chicken spaghetti, but also a lush, colorful salad, a mini loaf of homemade banana bread, and a baguette.
I dropped the tombstone I was carrying (thank goodness it was Styrofoam!) as a most profound sense of humility washed over me. All those oats I had been enjoying throughout the day vanished in a puff.
Now, I don’t usually go around oozing ample supplies of humility, mostly because I agree with writer Helen Nielsen who said: ‘humility is like underwear; essential, but indecent if it shows.’ And yet, for the next couple of days I kept repeating to anyone who would listen: “She has four children AND is five months pregnant AND she is taking it upon herself to feed US?” I just couldn’t believe her generosity of spirit and thoughtfulness at a time when her plate is already so full. Her dinner, which tasted as scrumptious as it smelled, was so abundant that we were also able to feed one of my daughter’s friends who was over at the time. My girls, now big fans, have since asked me to make more.
Out of curiosity, I tried to learn more about this dish, but even the late, long-time New York Times food editor and restaurant critic Craig Claiborne shared that its lineage was unclear. From what I can tell, it seems to be a Midwestern dish, birthed right along the time Campbell soup started inspiring a myriad of casserole dinners.
I have also learned that chicken spaghetti is usually baked or prepared in a crock pot though, in my ‘Italian-ness,’ I have turned my version into a straightforward pasta dish that requires cooking the pasta separately and making a sauce. It’s savory and filling and completely kid-friendly.
Why, it’s almost as good as my new neighbor’s heart.
making chicken spaghetti
Place 2/3 cup of Madeira wine in a small pan, bring to a boil, and cook for 5 minutes. (Doing so evaporates all the alcohol and gives the wine a richer, fuller-bodied flavor.)
Prep 16 oz. of cremini mushrooms. First wash them. I know…purists out there don’t believe in washing them. I do. I put them in a bowl a of fresh cold water with a splash of vinegar for a few seconds. The bonus is that if you do it quickly, the mushrooms won’t have time to absorb the water and the vinegar disinfects them to boot. Here’s how to do it.
You will need to work in two batches for the next part.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the unsalted butter in a large skillet (the largest one you have in the house!) over medium-high heat until it stops bubbling and add half of the prepped mushrooms.
Add a pinch of salt and sauté, stirring occasionally, for 5-6 minutes. When they look like this, transfer to a plate.
Add 2 more tablespoons of butter to the same pan and sauté the remaining mushromms along with another pinch of salt. Cook for 5-6 minutes and then join them with the previously cooked mushrooms and cover loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm.
In the same skillet, add 2 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 grated small yellow onion (click here for easy way to grate onions!).
Add 1 8-oz. package of mini sweet peppers, OR 1 red bell pepper, that have been deseeded and thinly sliced. Aren’t these little guys so cute??
Now add a pinch of salt and cook, on medium heat, until tender, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add ¾ lb. (3/4 of a package) of spaghetti and cook according to its package directions, making sure to salt the water generously and to drain the spaghetti when it is still al dente, or nice and firm. Be sure to reserve half a cup of the pasta water.
Return the cooked mushrooms to the skillet. Mix well and add the wine, the reserved pasta water and 1 cup of milk. Bring to a boil and then lower the temperature to low. Now add 4 tablespoons of butter and 6 oz. of grated Gruyère cheese.
Mix well until melted and then add the cooked spaghetti.
Add the 2 cups of shredded rotisserie chicken breast,
and 1 large handful of chopped parsley. Mix again until the spaghetti are evenly coated with sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately sprinkled with Parmigiano-Reggiano and additional parsley leaves. Makes 6 servings.