When Craig Claiborne, the late New York Times food editor, published his mother’s Chicken Spaghetti in the Times, he popularized a dish that embodied America’s family table at the middle of the 20th century.
Like so many supper table classics of its day, however, Chicken Spaghetti was more an idea than actual recipe. No two cooks appear to have made this luscious mélange of spaghetti, sauce and shredded chicken the same way. Each brought his or her own touch to it, and not even its three principle ingredients were absolute.
Take the sauce: Some cooks used a meatless tomato sauce flavored with chicken broth; others added ground meat or Italian sausage. Some were heady with wine, while more timid cooks added only a touch of sugar.
Enriched variously with velvety béchamel (sometimes instead of tomato sauce), ricotta or cottage cheese, it could be jazzed up with pimiento-stuffed green olives, black olives, diced bell peppers, water chestnuts, ginger and even jalapeno peppers.
Many a pan of Chicken Spaghetti was generously blanketed with Cheddar, but just as many were topped with Parmesan and mozzarella, or had no cheese at all, topped instead with buttered crumbs or slivered almonds.
Perhaps its most famous variation, Mrs. Claiborne’s, best sums up its variables. It included meat sauce, béchamel, celery, bell peppers and mushrooms and was laced with generous layers of Cheddar.
This simpler but equally sumptuous version is based on memories of my first Chicken Spaghetti, made by Mary Lynne Heyl, a fabulous cook from Aiken, S.C.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large, or 2 medium, yellow onions, peeled and chopped
8 ounces crimini (brown) mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
3 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fresh chopped oregano or 2 heaping teaspoons dried
1½ cups dry red wine
4 cups chopped Italian plum tomatoes, with their juices
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 large or 2 small to medium bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
Whole black pepper in a peppermill
Ground cayenne pepper or hot pepper flakes
3/4 pound diced or shredded cooked chicken, light and dark meat
1 pound hot, cooked spaghetti or thin spaghetti
1 to 1 1/2 cups lower-sodium chicken broth
1/4 pound freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/2 pound whole-milk mozzarella, coarsely grated
1. Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until softened and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and sauté until they are opaque and firm, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and oregano and sauté until fragrant, about half a minute.
2. Add wine and bring to boil, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot. Add tomatoes and tomato paste, stirring until smooth. Add bay leaf and season with salt, pepper and a pinch or so of cayenne pepper or pepper flakes. Bring to a simmer; reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer slowly until sauce is thick and flavors are well blended, 1 to 2 hours. Stir in cooked chicken, heat through, then turn off heat.
3. Preheat oven to 375F. Lightly grease a 13 x 9-inch casserole with olive oil.
4. Add cooked spaghetti to sauce, and toss until evenly coated and well mixed. Moisten with a cup or so of chicken broth as needed. Add half the Parmigiano and mozzarella and toss. Pour into baking dish, smooth the top, and sprinkle evenly with remaining cheese. Bake until hot, bubbly and golden on top, about 30 minutes. Serves 8.
Per serving: 590 calories, 24g fat, 51g prot., 35g carbs., 4g fiber, 1460mg sodium.
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Photo credit: Mark Boughton Photography / styling by Teresa Blackburn