An aroma and flavor that immediately conjures nostalgia — and hunger — is my mother's "cream chicken," which was passed down from her mother, my Nana. The dish is the epitome of simplicity: boneless, skinless chicken breasts, a few cans of plain tomato sauce, some milk, and a bounty of soft, pliant egg noodles. It takes no time at all and is made with hardly any ingredients, but is much more than the sum of its parts.
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Cream chicken is homey, comforting, and iconic — a steaming bed of freshly boiled egg noodles, the curlicues dancing on the plate, topped with chunks of tender chicken and a blanket of a creamy, rich sauce, the color slightly reminiscent of the Italian-American vodka sauce, but with the flavors of Eastern Europe. It is best eaten in a large bowl, the sauce suffusing each nook and cranny of the chicken and noodles. It's a meal that epitomizes the notion of comfort food with each bite and is especially delicious on a cold night. Bonus points if it's snowing!
When my mother cooks this meal, it is muscle memory: she knows precisely when each ingredient needs to be added, how much seasoning is called for, when to boil the egg noodles, etcetera. This dish is a take on the standard chicken paprikash, although my family's version eschews the paprika and some of the other common inclusions. While many recipes call for garlic, onions, sour cream, and other ingredients, our simplistic version is all that I can ask for when it comes to this restorative, memorable meal. It comes together using five ingredients, not including cooking oil and salt and pepper, making it an ideal budget-friendly weeknight dinner, too.
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Paprikash is a traditional Hungarian dish, which became a part of our family due to my Nana's Slovak roots. (She would be immensely displeased if she heard me lend credence to Hungary — she was adamant that her heritage was 100% Slovak, through and through.)
According to Taste Atlas, chicken paprikash, also called paprikás csirke, is actually "considered by some researchers as one of the four staple dishes of … Hungarian cuisine."
If I were to gussy up the iconic cream chicken dish even just a bit, I'd maybe add some melted butter, salt, and chopped parsley to the egg noodles. But truly, there's no reason to gild the lily, so I think I'll go on making it just as my Nana and my mom did — and I wouldn't have it any other way.
I asked my mom to dictate this recipe to me for this story: she is by no means a gourmet chef, but she took this exercise very seriously. She was exacting and precise, envisioning and recounting her step-by-step process and the tactile cooking experience that she's become so accustomed to after years and years of cooking this storied dish.
For her — and for my nana — I hope that this dish can become a part of your family dinner repertoire, too.
RECIPE: Nana's Cream Chicken
- 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into large chunks
- 2 to 3 small cans of plain tomato sauce
- ¼ cup whole milk milk
- ¼ all-purpose flour
- 1 pound egg noodles (the broader, the better)
- Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1. Warm oil in a large, deep pot over medium heat. Add chicken, season, and cook until browned, turning frequently. (You're mainly looking to get some color on the chicken in this step, not cook the breasts through entirely.)
2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
3. Add cans of tomato sauce to pot, along with the equivalent amount of cold water (my mother would always just refill the can with water once or twice and then pour it into the pot). Stir well, ensuring that the tomato and water is mixed and the chicken is submerged.
4. Turn heat to low and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until chicken is cooked through.
5. Add flour and milk to a small bowl, whisk until fully homogeneous and there are no lumps, and then add to pot. Turn heat to medium-high, stir immediately to blend the thickening agent into the cooking liquid, and let it heat through and thicken.
6. Add egg noodles to boiling water and cook according to package instructions. Drain.
7. Adjust seasoning and add more tomato or water — if need be — depending on the thickness of the resulting gravy.
8. To serve, fill a large bowl with a bed of hot noodles and top with chicken and a copious amount of gravy.
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