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Do you go to Italian restaurants very often? I don’t. It’s hard for me to pay for pasta dishes since they’re so easy and cheap to make at home. Also, if you go to a chain, they’re probably not making sauce from scratch in the back, you know what I’m saying? Now, if a place is making their own sauce and using fresh ingredients, sign me up! There’s a place downtown called Valter’s Osteria that makes their own ravioli and gnocchi and is consistently rated the #1 restaurant in Salt Lake City. I want to go there. It’s just $$$ so I haven’t yet, but I digress.
Where Does Chicken Alfredo Come From, Anyway?
I would wager that Chicken Alfredo is one of the most popular pasta dishes in America. It’s gotta be, and for good reason! Who doesn’t love a creamy, cheesy sauce with pasta and chicken? I’ve heard various people say that fettuccini Alfredo is an American dish, not Italian. That is both true and false. Wikipedia says the following:
“Serving fettuccine with butter and cheese was first mentioned in a 15th-century recipe for maccaroni romaneschi (“Roman pasta”) by Martino da Como, a northern Italian cook active in Rome; the recipe cooks the pasta in broth or water and adds butter, “good cheese” (the variety is not specified) and “sweet spices”.
Modern fettuccine Alfredo was invented by Alfredo di Lelio in Rome. According to family accounts, in 1892 Alfredo di Lelio began to work in a restaurant that was located in piazza Rosa and run by his mother Angelina. Di Lelio invented “fettuccine al triplo burro” (later named “fettuccine all’Alfredo” or “fettuccine Alfredo”) in 1907 or 1908 in an effort to entice his wife, Ines, to eat after giving birth to their first child Armando. Alfredo added extra butter or “triplo burro” to the fettuccine when mixing it together for her.”
So there you go. Fettuccini Alfredo does come from Italy, but without the cream. The Italians just used the magic of pasta water and cheese. America contributed the cream and the chicken. This will not be the last time I say this, but American food is so awesome because we’re like the culinary wild west. Our country as we know it is not that old, and so we’re not bound by culinary tradition as much. We take older, more developed cuisines and then break all the rules. Sometimes it’s a hot mess, but usually it’s pretty great.
On that note, clearly Native American cuisine has been around for thousands of years, and I’m ashamed to say I know almost nothing about it. If you have a great Native American cookbook or food blog to recommend, would you please enlighten me in the comments?
Making the Sauce
Now, onto the pasta! Start your sauce as soon as you put your pasta in the pot. It will be done by the time you are ready to drain your pasta. I told you it was fast. Fettuccini is the traditional pasta shape for this dish, but noodles are hard for my kids to get on their forks, so I usually do a smaller shape that’s easier to spear.
Step one: Melt your butter in a pan.
Step two: grate your garlic and cook until fragrant. When I say grate your garlic, I mean grate it on one of these bad boys:
You’ll never mince garlic again. You can thank me later. Just watch your fingers.
Step three: Add your cream, and then immediately your egg yolk on top of the cream. Have the egg separated before you start. Whisk as soon as you drop that yolk in. The cold cream will protect the yolk from the heat and prevent scrambling.
Step four: Bring the sauce to a simmer (not a full on boil), and then reduce the heat to low. This will prevent the cheese from separating and curdling. Add the parmesan cheese and stir. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Step five: squeeze a little bit of lemon juice in the sauce at the very end. This adds brightness and depth.
Add your pasta and your chicken, toss to coat, and there you go! You’re a dinner genius.
For the chicken in this Chicken Alfredo, use leftover chicken! I love leftover grilled chicken in this. I had some Mediterranean chicken from dinner the night before. If you don’t have leftover chicken, either make some fresh of leave it out! Also, I toss some peas in the pasta water at the very end and then drain them with the pasta.
Speaking of Pasta Water…
Did you know that pasta water has magical properties? As the pasta cooks, it releases some of its starch into the water, so you’re left with starchy, salty water at near the end of cooking (always salt your pasta water. It’s the only seasoning the noodles themselves get). This can do two things. Pasta water can thin out an overly thick sauce, but it won’t thin it out too much unless you go crazy. Just add a couple of tablespoons at a time. The starch also adds body to a sauce. Adding a little pasta water and then stirring a pasta dish for a couple of minutes will yield richer, silkier sauce. Not to mention it’s salty so it can enhance seasoning. Every time you cook pasta, scoop out some of that magic water before you throw the rest down the drain.
Making Your Own Sauces Is the Best
When I started cooking, I never even thought that people could make their own sauces. Once you start though, you won’t go back to the jar. Homemade Alfredo sauce is so, so good. It’s also fast and much cheaper than buying Alfredo sauce from the store. You’re going to love it.
Please let me know when you make this, would you? It surprises and delights me when people make my recipes.
Until next time, fellow test cooks!
- 1 pound pasta of choice I use a small shape like rotini, but feel free to use fettuccini. I would avoid tiny shapes, or very thin shapes, such as spaghetti.
- 3 or 4 Tablespoons Kosher salt for the pasta cooking water
- 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 cloves garlic, grated or minced
- 1 and 1/2 cups heavy cream cold
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese plus more for sprinkling on top
- 3/4 teaspoon salt to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 squeeze fresh lemon juice start with 1/4 teaspoon if measuring makes you feel good.
- 1 cup reserved pasta water Save a cup of the pasta water before you drain the pasta.
- 1 cup frozen peas optional
- 1 pound leftover grilled chicken, cubed you could also definitely grill some chicken before you started the pasta if you didn't have leftovers.
- 2 Tablespoons fresh chopped Italian parsley optional
- Bring a large pot of water up to a boil.
- Once the water is boiling, add about 3 or 4 tablespoons of kosher salt. The water should taste salty. Add your pasta and cook according to the package directions.
- As soon as you put the pasta on to cook, start your sauce.
- Preheat a large skillet (preferably with high sides) over medium heat.
- Melt 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter in the pan. Add your garlic and cook for just a few seconds, until fragrant.
- Add the cream and then immediately the egg yolk, whisking as soon as the yolk hits the cream. This will prevent the yolk from scrambling. You want the cold cream to shield the yolk from the hot butter and the pan.
- Bring the sauce to a simmer over medium heat, and then reduce the heat to low, whisking every minute or so.
- Add the parmesan cheese and whisk together.
- Taste the sauce and add salt and pepper to taste. You want to add salt after the cheese, because parmesan is salty and it's easy to get carried away with the salt.
- Right before your pasta is done, add a little squeeze of lemon juice. This really brightens the sauce and adds depth to the dish.
- Take a liquid measure and scoop out about 1 cup of pasta cooking water.
- Add the frozen peas directly to your pasta water just before the pasta is done. The peas only need about 30 seconds to warm through.
- Drain your pasta and add it to the sauce, tossing to coat. Add chicken and stir. Let it cook for a couple of minutes to warm the chicken through.
- If the sauce gets too thick, add about 1/4 cup of pasta water, then stir.
- Sprinkle more parmesan over the top of the dish, if you wish.
- Garnish with chopped parsley, if you're feeling fancy.