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Tales of a newlywed cook (or how I almost killed us with undercooked chicken)

Howdy, it's Don Hammack, the online editor at SunHerald.com. My lovely wife Carla and I take turns cooking at our luxurious Broadmoor estate. Last night was my turn. As I've done in the past eight months, I pulled out a handy wedding gift, a cookbook from a local church's women's group, which I won't name for reasons that will become obvious.



I've found a recipe for Cheddar Chicken Spaghetti in there. We both thought, What could be better? Pasta. Chicken. Cheese. Yum. Yum. And yum. The recipe was so easy I could make it. I leave the office before Carla, so I'm getting the finishing touches put on the preps when Carla walks in. The spaghetti is straining before I put it in the casserole dish with the cream of chicken soup, milk, raw chicken and seasoning when she looks at the book propped open on the counter.



"Hey," she says, "why does this recipe say put the dish in for 20 to 25 minutes and the one on the other page say to use cooked chicken in a similar recipe that goes in for 45 minutes at the same temperature?" The Panic sets in.



The line in my recipe says "2 cups cubed chicken." If I learned anything in the nuclear navy, it's to follow procedure. The procedure, I mean recipe, doesn't say "cooked chicken." I mean, what am I supposed to do? I tell Carla, "Well, maybe we'll just cook it longer. In 25 minutes, we'll either have dinner here or a drive to Mickey D's, I guess."



I slide it into the oven and set the timer for 25 minutes. Then, I run to allrecipes.com, where I punch "cheddar chicken spaghetti" into the search engine and get a recipe nearly identical to the one in my cookbook, bar one word:

INGREDIENTS

1 (7 ounce) package spaghetti, broken

2 cups cubed, cooked chicken

2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese, divided

1 (10.75 ounce) can condensed cream of chicken soup, undiluted

1 cup milk

1 tablespoon diced pimientos

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper



DIRECTIONS

Cook spaghetti according to package directions. Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the chicken, 1 cup cheese, soup, milk, pimientos if desired, salt and pepper. Drain spaghetti; add to the chicken mixture and toss to coat. Transfer to a greased 13-in. x 9-in. x 2-in. baking dish. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees F for 20-25 minutes or until heated through.




The Panic intensifies. Carla digs out a recipe from her card file that's similar and uses uncooked chicken, and it says cook it for 45 minutes. When the timer goes off, I put another 20 minutes on it and let the potentially deadly Cheddar Chicken Spaghetti bake away.



When the alarm goes off, I dread what I'm to find in the oven. I pull it out. The cheese still looks good, but not as good as it did when I peeked at 25 minutes. I grab a piece of chicken from the edge and cut it open. It's cooked through. I know that's one most likely to be done, so I have to say goodbye to presentation points and start digging in the middle. Two more pieces of chicken there are cooked through. I breathe a short sigh of relief, but I'm always nervous around chicken, even when I'm 100 percent confident in the recipe. Salmonella scares the bejeepers outta me.



I call Carla in, tell her I love her and tape a note to my chest: "If found dead from salmonella, sue the nice ladies at that church." We sit down and find the dish quite tasty. (Allrecipes.com reviewers suggest adding some garlic and/or onion salt for more flavor. I can see that, and will probably try it next time.) More importantly, we woke up this morning feeling healthy and feeling no ill-effects from the meal. As I sit here at my desk in the Sun Herald newsroom, I have another heaping helping in our little office refrigerator waiting for me for lunch.



My lesson learned: Making enjoyable food should necessarily be the primary goal of a cook. Surviving is No. 1 in my book.

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