I took out some chicken earlier in the day to use for dinner and after a quick glance over our refrigerator shelves and pantry (mushrooms (check), fresh thyme (check), peas (check), cream (check), orzo (check)) I decided something along the lines of chicken tetrazzini was in order. So, a skillet, two saucepans and a pot later this afternoon I was placing a baking dish brimming with creamy goodness in the oven. You’re probably thinking this isn’t a dish to be made on a weekday … that’s what I was thinking too. But I’m happy to say I managed (homework, story time and Thomas track building included) to bring this dish to life in just under two hours. Yes, the weekend might be more suitable and yes using leftover roasted chicken or turkeyand pre-made chicken stock from your pantry would make things much quicker (and easier), but rest assured taking this on from the start is not as bad as it seems. Trust me …
FYI: Tetrazzini is a dish (some may categorize it as [an ubiquitous] casserole — casseroles really get a bum rap don’t they?) featuring poultry, pasta/egg noodles, mushrooms and a cream sauce. It is believed that the dish is named after the Italian opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini and that it originated when a chef in California first put it together in her honor in the very early 1900s. I don’t know if that’s true of course but I do know that I like this dish and have made it once before using egg noodles and sherry but ventured today to put a slightly different spin on it — namely spiking the cream sauce with Cognac and using kritharaki (Greek for orzo) instead of longer spaghetti-type pasta.
Chicken and Orzo Tetrazzini
4 chicken breast halves
6 whole black peppercorns
1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced thin
2 sprigs fresh thyme
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 1/4 cups kritharaki (orzo)
1 1/2 cups peas
2 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
4 tablespoons Cognac
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
1/2 cup freshly grated Kefalotyri (parmesan or pecorino will also do)
Place the chicken breasts in a large saucepan with enough water to cover by about two inches. Add salt, bay leaf and peppercorns to the saucepan and bring to a boil. Skim the froth from the top then reduce heat to a simmer and cook about 20 minutes. With a slotted spoon remove chicken and when cool enough to handle slice and chop the breast meat, and set aside. Meanwhile, continue simmering the broth until reduced to approximately 2 1/2 cups. Strain through a fine mesh sieve.
In a medium saucepan heat the three tablespoons olive oil and add the mushrooms and thyme. Saute the mushrooms until golden then remove the mushrooms to a large bowl using a slotted spoon; discard the sprigs of thyme. Into the same saucepan add another tablespoon of olive oil and begin making the roux. Heat the olive oil over low heat then add the flour and cook, stirring, for about three minutes. Whisk in the reduced broth, the cream and the cognac and bring the sauce to a boil, whisking. Reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Season the sauce with nutmeg, salt and freshly ground pepper.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Oil a baking dish, about 2 1/2 quarts in size. In a pot of boiling salted water cook the orzo until al dente (adding the peas a couple minutes before the end) and drain well. Toss the orzo and peas into the same bowl with your mushrooms then stir half the sauce into the orzo/mushrooms and toss to coat. Place the orzo/mushrooms in the baking dish, spreading it more to the edges of the baking dishes in order to leave a well, of sorts, in the center. Add the reserved chicken to the remaining sauce, toss to coat, and place it over the orzo in the baking dish. Sprinkle with the Kefalotyri and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until pale golden. Serve hot.