The One Recipe: How to Make the Homesick Texan's Chicken Spaghetti
Creamy spaghetti casserole becomes even more irresistible when you add a Tex-Mex spin. Lisa Fain, the face behind the popular Homesick Texan blog and cookbooks, breaks down her ever-popular recipe in five easy steps.
In the Kitchen with Lisa Fain
The first thing you notice about Lisa is her cowboy boots. Cherry red, spit polished and worn-in just enough, they tell you everything you need to know about the Houston transplant's cooking: It's bright, approachable, comes from the West and will linger in your memory for days afterward. To bring some welcome variety to the winter kitchen, we invited the James Beard Award winner to our Manhattan headquarters in Chelsea Market to make Chicken Spaghetti, one of her favorite dishes from her latest volume, The Homesick Texan's Family Table. Here's how she does it.
Get the Recipe: Chicken Spaghetti
Ditch the Cans
Many of Lisa's dishes come from family recipes, and Spaghetti Chicken was one of her great-grandmother Blanche's signatures. "Like most midcentury casseroles, it was made with canned soup. I grew up eating it the old-fashioned way." For her version she eliminated the processed soup and switched up some of the vegetables. "I put in jalapenos instead of green bell peppers," Lisa said. "I like it a little spicy." The other ingredients are pantry staples: garlic, onion, cilantro, sharp cheddar and Monterey Jack. Grape tomatoes stand in for canned: "They are basically itty-bitty Roma tomatoes," said Lisa. "And they're pretty much good all year-round."
For More on Lisa's Essentials, See: The Homesick Texan's Tex-Mex Pantry
Add Flavor with Fire
After she puts the spaghetti up to cook, Lisa spreads the vegetables skin-side up on a baking sheet and broils them for a quick char. "It's an easy way to coax out the flavor," she said, transferring the blackened tomatoes to a cutting board and returning the still-pale onions to the oven for a few more minutes. When the vegetables are cool enough to handle, she chops them up and sets them aside.
Use All Your Senses
The base of the cheese sauce is what Southern cooks call a "roux," a combination of butter and flour that's whisked together over medium-low heat. While New Orleans chefs may cook it to a rich nutty brown, Lisa looks for just a hint of color: "This isn't a gumbo roux," she said, bending down to smell the pot. "I want it just a little toasted. It should darken just a bit so the flour doesn't taste raw."
Take It Slow
Once the roux is cooked, Lisa gradually whisks in whole milk until the mixture starts to thicken. "It should be creamy and coat the back of the spoon, but not thick like custard," she said. Next, she stirs in grated cheddar and Monterey Jack. "I put it in a handful at a time, and I don't add more until the previous addition is all melted. It keeps the sauce from clumping." Last to go in are the charred vegetables and seasonings.
Stand by Your Pan
Though a large baking dish will do, Lisa prefers cast iron for casseroles like Chicken Spaghetti. "It conducts heat very well, it's naturally nonstick, it's durable and goes from stovetop to oven without a problem," she raved. "Plus, it's pretty." For her demo, Lisa precooked the pasta to al dente. "You don't want it too mushy because it's going into the oven," she said. Then she spread it in a baking dish. "It's OK if it's sticky," she reassured us. She scattered shredded cooked chicken, then poured the molten cheese and vegetable mixture over the whole thing.
Perfect for Potlucks
Warm and bubbling with an irresistible cheesy crust, Chicken Spaghetti straight from the oven is hard to beat. But the dish is also a great make-ahead meal for a busy weeknight, neighborhood potluck or any time you need a comforting dish for a friend. "In Texas it's a popular funeral food," Lisa said. "You can do all the prep work in advance: Cook the spaghetti, the sauce and the vegetables ahead and store them separately. Or you can cook the whole dish and just reheat it."
Go Tex-Mex at Home
Make Chicken Spaghetti — or one of Lisa's other winning dishes — in your own kitchen.
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