Off North Road

TETRAZZINI

By Russell Hoxsie - December 28, 2006

Our Thanksgiving was quiet; it was the off-year for our family. On alternate years we usually entertained the family on the Vineyard. In recent years, as we grew in numbers we no longer gathered literally in our small house but found places for everyone and a central place to have our holiday meal. For several reasons we could not arrange that this year and made Thanksgiving with all the trim for three of us - my wife Mary Ann, me, and Russ Jr., our middle son. We managed turkey with all the fixings at a small candle-lit table in our own dining room. It was lovely. Then the after-holiday came upon us and the refrigerator groaned from overload of leftovers in the absence the appetites of a house-full of extended family. Mary Ann and I commenced relieving its load. If you have ever seen an expert and novice competing for limited space, equipment, and agreement on differences in style, you can pretty much recreate the scene for yourselves. Turkey Tetrazzini was our objective. I have tried to research the source of this obviously Italian dish and could come up only with the name of Louisa Tetrazzini, an operatic soprano, who lived from 1871 to 1940; also a turkey dish with spaghetti and spicy cheese sauce. The four of "tetra" must refer to four different cheeses, which our recipe did not mention ("One Dish Recipes and More," published by International Publications, Ltd., 2003, Lewis Weber, CEO).

Before I volunteered as sous-chef, Mary Ann had already started cutting up the turkey and heating the sauce: mayonnaise, gluten-free flour (my variation), celery salt, pepper, and milk. "Here, take the spoon and keep this on medium heat, but keep stirring all the time until it thickens," she said, and turned to work on something behind my back. We are accustomed to bumping into each other, especially while making breakfast, when we are barely awake. This day we were in high form. The holiday had been fairly quiet and we had slept well the night before.

"When does it thicken and why? How do I know it's thickened?" My questions were those of a rank idiot but MA was patient with her help and I kept stirring.

"Is it thickening?" she asked from behind my back.

"You'd better look," I said handing her the spoon.

"No, no, keep stirring; I can see it's not thick yet." I resumed my work. Then in a just a few minutes I could tell something was happening; the milky texture, like velvet, began to need a little extra push, an ounce or two of pressure to the spoon.

"I think it's happening," I exclaimed. "Yes, it's coming along great. When do I stop?"

"Just tell me when you think it's right," she said softly. Could she really put this much trust in me? I wondered. Oh well, it's not quite there, I guess. Before another couple of minutes had passed, the miracle happened. Without sticking to the bottom of the pan, the mixture now was a thick smooth cream and before even asking my mentor, I removed the pot from the burner and turned around.

"That's perfect," my mentor said and smiled. My heart warmed and then she said, "Now cook the spaghetti!" This was old hat for me. We had been testing gluten-free spaghetti for a couple of years and I had learned how to bring this unusual pasta to "al dente" with élan.

"Now add the other ingredients," she added.

I began to sweat. "Do they have to go in special order?"

"Of course, just as I said." The spaghetti passed the bite test and I added the creamy sauce without a doubt except that it seemed there would not be enough sauce.

"Just continue stirring" (now on the burner turned low). I really began to feel my oats, or rather, my pasta. Then followed the turkey, then Parmesan cheese, a can of mushrooms (drained), and pimento, all lightly mixed. I could tell this final mixing was an art form. Had I brought out the electric mixer and turned it to high, which I routinely do for mashed potatoes, I would have produced a peculiar mud that Mary Ann would have thrown out with impunity.

Our concoction was finished, except for topping the whole with bread crumbs tossed with melted butter, the remaining Parmesan and chopped pimentos (the chopping expertly performed by me without drawing blood). The steaming casserole appeared from the oven like ambrosia from the gods. The light brown texture was perfect, the aroma heavenly and the vision of its interior mixture as the spoon timidly plumbed its depth brought water to our mouths and tears to our eyes. An encirclement of tiny bubbles about the edges of the dish added sizzle to its placement on the table.

Throughout the whole operation we had discussed the origin of pimentos, but came to no consensus. We were doubly confused by the dimensions and feel of the soft red fruit that Mary Ann teased from the can. Since I was a kid, I've relished sucking out pimentos from green olives and never knew what those tidbits actually were made of. Mary Ann thought they were the meat of tomatoes and turned up her nose. Tomatoes and she have waged gastronomic war going on for some years. She insisted we omit the pimento garnish from her half of the final dish. Despite Mary Ann's demurral the bright red chunks in our dinner's topping was a joyful touch and the taste not more than my recollection as a child (not very much to describe except color). Finally, our minor culinary mystery was solved by "The New World Dictionary." Pimento, either its juice or flesh, is derived from a sweet variety of the capsicum pepper, its red bell-shaped fruit used as a relish. The surprise is that it is also the same as "allspice." This latter is made from a West Indian tree (Pimenta officinalis) said to have the tastes of many different spices. Most of us have recognized since childhood the aroma of allspice filling the house where a properly stuffed New England turkey is cooking in a hot oven.

We made the best of a "quiet" Thanksgiving holiday, but, in truth, we probably missed the excitement, sometimes chaos, of a more robust holiday with lots of people, many meals to be made and finding beds for everyone. What happened in the aftermath of this year's Thanksgiving was thanks indeed, the fun of working in our very little kitchen and persuading another delicious meal to come into being, just the two of us. Saints be praised!