Tenerumi Redux

Given our interest in Italian-American ingredients, yesterday we pounced upon this lovely basket of squash tendrils at Chase’s Daily in Belfast, Maine. We couldn’t help noting that surrounding this quintessentially Italian home garden specialty were Japanese eggplants, Thai basil, and produce with New World origins— Maine fingerling potatoes, multicolored cherry and husk tomatoes along with herbs like epazote and papalo.

Tenerumi at Chase's Daily, Belfast, Maine
Tenerumi at Chase’s Daily in Belfast, Maine
Copyright © 2014 Skip Lombardi

Late summer is the time of culinary fusion as gardens overflow. It’s easy to forget that the gardens of Italian immigrants—with their Mexican tomatoes and peppers—were already hot-spots of gastronomic change and experimentation. A generation or two from now, who knows what Italian-American food may include?

An abundance of squash means that the fast-growing tips of their vines, known in Italian as tenerumi, can be repeatedly harvested and enjoyed as components of pasta dishes. Once cut, the delicate tenerumi haven’t a long life in the fridge so they are hard to find in commercial distribution.

However, if you or someone you know has a garden, take a cue from our Italian grandparents…

Turkey Tetrazzini

 

On the day after Thanksgiving, we thought we’d share with you an excerpt from our new book. Turkey Tetrazzini is what home cooks of the Mad Men generation did with their turkey leftovers.

Buon appetito e felice ringraziamento.

Luisa Tetrazzini
Luisa Tetrazzini

Recipes are never static; they spawn imitations and adaptations. And they travel—around a neighborhood or between continents. Sometimes the “original” recipe—which may never have been written down—is lost. A good post-Thanksgiving example is Turkey Tetrazzini.

Named to honor the Florentine opera diva, Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1941), the combination of boneless turkey, mushrooms, and pasta in a white sauce, was supposedly created by the French culinary doyen, Auguste Escoffier.

This dish and its permutations highlight yet another aspect of “Almost Italian”—namely, how the popular American notion of Italian food expanded to embrace dishes that did not include “red sauce.” Whether they had troubled themselves to make a simple béchamel, velouté, or had taken an all-too-easy short-cut with a can of cream of mushroom soup, sometime in the 1950’s, cooks across America began to confidently turn Thanksgiving leftovers into something that seemed sophisticated and “Continental.”

Donna Luisa sang before enthusiastic audiences in San Francisco, and murky sources claim the dish first appeared there between 1907 and 1910. The coloratura’s most flamboyant appearance was not on stage, but on the street, in front of the San Francisco Chronicle building. Barred from opera houses in New York because of a contract dispute, Luisa Tetrazzini swept into San Francisco, proclaiming (long before the flower-power fests of the 1960’s), that “the streets of San Francisco are free” and that she would “sing in the streets.” Indeed, she performed on Christmas Eve 1910, for a crowd estimated to have exceeded 200,000.

Turkey Tetrazzini’s only connections to Italian cuisine seem to be spaghetti and the dish’s name. While Escoffier had a propensity for naming his creations to honor opera stars (Tournedos Rossini, Peach Melba), there is no published evidence that he created Turkey Tetrazzini any more than there is corroboration that he ever visited San Francisco.

Domesticated poultry have never figured heavily in the cuisines of Italy. Nonetheless, a turkey might appear on a Christmas table. As European turkeys tend to be leaner than the mega-birds bred in America, holiday turkey leftovers would probably have ended up as ingredients in a soup stock or minced as stuffing for tortellini or ravioli.

Here in America, what to do with left-over turkey has given rise to thousands of recipes. In the tradition of operatic hyperbole, one could claim that there are hundreds of Turkey Tetrazzinis. And though more than a few of them appear in modern European Italian and Latin American cookbooks (Luisa Tetrazzini also toured South America, which had large Italian immigrant populations), the recipe seems to have first “happened” here in North America.

Turkey Tetrazzini

Ingredients:

1 Lb. Spaghetti
12 oz. Button mushrooms, thinly sliced
7 Tbs unsalted butter
1/4 Cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 Cups whole milk
1/4 Cup heavy cream
2 Cups chicken broth
1/4 Cup dry white wine
4 Cups coarsely chopped cooked turkey
1 10 oz. Package frozen baby peas, thawed
2/3 Cup freshly grated Parmesan
1/3 Cup unseasoned bread crumbs
1/4 tsp. Nutmeg, freshly grated
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
4 Tbs Flat-leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 375° F.

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and then add the spaghetti. Cook until the pasta has reached the al dente state. Drain in a collander and reserve.

Meanwhile, heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and add 3 Tbs butter. When the butter has foamed and the bubbles have begun to subside, add the mushrooms, lower the heat to medium and sauté for approximately 10 minutes, until the mushrooms have given up their liquid and it has evaporated. Remove from the heat and reserve.

Heat a 2 – 3 quart saucepan over medium-high heat and add 3 Tbs butter. When the butter has melted, stir in the flour and cook the mixture over low heat, stirring constantly, for approximately 3 minutes.

Gradually stir in the milk, cream, broth, and the wine. Raise the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes or until the sauce has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Assembly:

In a large bowl, combine the pasta, the mushrooms, the turkey, the peas, and the sauce. Season with salt and pepper, and grated nutmeg. Stir in 1/3 cup of the Parmesan and transfer the mixture to a buttered ovenproof casserole, at least 2″ in depth. (The shallower the casserole, the greater the amount of golden and crispy topping you’ll have to share.)

In a small bowl combine the remaining 1/3 cup of Parmesan, the bread crumbs, salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the pasta, and dot with the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter, cut into bits.

Bake the casserole on the middle rack of the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until it is bubbling and the top has browned. Remove from the oven and allow the casserole sit for 10 minutes before serving.

To Serve:

Divide the Tetrazzini equally among six to eight dinner plates and garnish each with the chopped parsley.

Serves 6 to 8.

Wish You Were Here…

The charming 2006 Italian film Nuovomondo (released in the U.S. as The Golden Door) is a mixture of images and themes—gritty southern Italian poverty and superstition softened by romance, magic realism, and hope.

Very large poultry
Photo courtesy of http://cardcow.com

The film begins with Sicilian peasants awaiting a sign from heaven as to whether they should emigrate from their impoverished village. Tipping the balance in favor of exodus are a few postcards from paesani who have already made their passage to the New World (Nuovomondo). On one, enormous coins hang from the branches of a tree. On another, gargantuan vegetables dwarf farmers trying to get them to market.

Very large cucumbers
Photo courtesy of http://cardcow.com

We wondered if the postcards were a contemporary product of Photoshop or if cards like those had ever been printed, sold, and sent.

Very large onions
Photo courtesy of http://cardcow.com

Seek and ye shall find…and we found hundreds printed between the 1890’s and the end of the First World War. Since all are labeled in English, it’s quite clear that they were made to indulge domestic regional pride and the American taste for whimsy and “tall tales.” (Think of the giant pumpkin and livestock competitions that persist today at state fairs.) The growth of private motorcar ownership and American tourism also expanded a market for these cards.

Very large almonds
Photo courtesy of http://cardcow.com

We can only guess how many of these images were mailed abroad. But as we’ve noted, the Italian immigrants had a sense of humor. Expressing themselves through food as they did, might they have thought colorful chrome prints of farm bounty could tempt the rest of the family back in the Mezzogiorno to get on the boat and join them here in America? We’ll never know for sure, but it is no wonder that an Italian film-maker found images like these irresistible.