Chicken Tetrazini for Talia

The death of a child is something so deeply soul-wrenching I can’t pretend to know about it.My first experience with a child dying was when I was just a child myself.  I’m not sure I even cried.  My neighbor, a new friend a bit older than me, had a younger brother with cancer.  I played at her house a lot and visited with her brother now and then.  I know his death impacted me but I was young and I didn’t know him all that well.  What impacted me more was what their mother said about his funeral.  I will quote it even though I don’t have the exact words because her message was so important to me all my life I feel like I remember the words exactly.  “The casket will be closed because I don’t want you to remember him as sick.  I want you to remember him when he was healthy, riding his bike through the neighborhood with his baseball cap on backwards and a big smile on his face.”  Even as a young child, I remember thinking she was so wise.  In all the agony of her son dying, she was thinking about how we would remember her son in his short life and she wanted us to remember his happiness, not be saddened by his pain.  I'm not sure I could have been so wise.

Firstborn Daughter also had a friend who died of cancer. Her friend was 21 years old and had survived disease for five years when it finally overtook her.  She was funny, smart, beautiful and was attending Stanford University, taking intermittent breaks for chemotherapy treatments when she wasn’t in remission.  Like me, Firstborn Daughter was heartbroken at the news she was gone.  But as a parent, my biggest heartbreak was for her mom and dad.  I couldn't imagine the pain.

And then there was Talia. Talia died in an instant on December 23, 2007.  She was 13. When I thought about Talia’s mother and how she was feeling, I knew food would not appease her pain.  But I wanted to offer her comfort in the only way I knew.  I thought about foods that offered me comfort as a child and I made the food for Talia, putting all the love I had into the chicken tetrazini that I brought to Talia’s mother, the mother who just lost her only child.  I cried while making it, thinking of beautiful Talia and her life cut short, thinking of her mom and the loss so great her heart could never be whole again, not thinking about how I would feel in her situation because that grief was too big to imagine.

I didn’t expect to hear from her. I certainly didn’t expect her to care about the food.  But she did. Somehow, that little shred of comfort was important and she let me know.  She asked for more.  I was so honored, so grateful and so blessed to make it for her again.  I’m sure the grieving mother doesn’t remember much about those months following her daughters death, and I’m certain she doesn’t remember the chicken tetrazini.  But I do.  It was the only thing I had to give to a grieving heart that couldn’t be helped, or healed, or fixed.  Cooking for Talia helped me experience the loss and realize that food is one thing that everyone needs when grieving.  Sharing your love through food can touch someone whose heart is so broken you wonder if it will keep beating. And in some little way it might help them heal.

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“Some foods are so comforting, so nourishing of body and soul, that to eat them is to be home again after a long journey." - Eli Brown

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Chicken Tetrazini for Talia*

3 chicken breasts, bone-in 4 cups chicken broth 8 T butter 1 T olive oil 1 pound crimini mushrooms, sliced 1 sweet yellow onion, finely chopped 2 cloves garlic, minced 1-1/2 tsp dried thyme 1/2 cup dry white wine 1/3 cup flour 4 cups whole milk, room temperature 1 cup heavy cream, room temperature 1/8 tsp nutmeg 1-1/2 tsp salt 1/2 tsp pepper 12 oz linguine 3/4 cup frozen peas 1/4 cup chopped fresh italian parsley 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese 1/4 cup Italian style breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Place the chicken and 4 cups of broth in a pot.  Add water until chicken is submerged.  Bring to boil, lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes.  Turn off heat, cover and leave until completely cooled.  Remove chicken from liquid and shred into a large bowl.  Reserve 1 cup of broth.

Put 1 T of butter and 1 T oil into the pan.  Add mushrooms and sauté over medium high heat about 5-8 minutes until pan is dry and mushrooms are starting to brown.  Add onions and continue to stir over medium high heat another 5-8 minutes until onions are soft.  Add garlic and thyme and sauté 2 minutes.  Add wine and stir until liquid evaporates.  Pour into bowl with chicken and mix well.

Melt 3 T butter in pan over medium low heat and whisk in flour.  Cook for 2 minutes and whisk in milk, cream, remaining 1 cup broth, nutmeg, salt and pepper.  Increase heat to high and bring to boil.  Simmer until sauce thickens slightly, whisking frequently.  This takes about 10 minutes.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add linguine and cook until al dente, about 9 minutes.  Drain.  Add the linguine, cream sauce, peas and parsley to the chicken mixture and toss until the sauce coats everything and it is well blended.

Spread 1 T butter into a 13"x9" baking dish and pour the pasta mixture into the dish.  Mix the Parmesan and breadcrumbs together and sprinkle over the pasta.  Dot with remaining 3 T butter and bake, uncovered, until golden brown on top and sauce is bubbling, about 25 minutes.

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*This recipe is rewritten from a Giada De Laurentiis recipe.