Fettuccine Alfredo made with cream is classic American comfort food. This version is plenty rich enough to honor tradition. It’s also balanced with extra garlic, bright lemon juice, lean protein and a generous dose of fresh spinach. All that, and it’s ready in 20 minutes.
Adding a bit of the starchy pasta cooking water to the sauce, and then simmering the pasta in the sauce for a moment, may be the most Italian aspect of this recipe. It helps to create a silky, unified dish.
Yesterday morning before Celia left for school, I asked if she might want something special for dinner. She said, “Chicken. And pasta.” I mean, good call, kid. All day I let my brain background-process that set of requirements, and apparently it took me to 1986, when I was 10 and growing like a weed and only ever wanted Fettuccine Alfredo.
The Sordid History of Fettuccine Alfredo
I love that the history of Italian-American dishes is often slightly sordid, and Fettuccine Alfredo is no exception. Technically this dish has roots in Italy, but the fettuccine burro e parmigiano, or pasta in bianco, created by Alfredo di Lelio in Rome in 1914 for his pregnant wife had little to do with the cream-based recipe that Americans call Alfredo sauce.
That dish is basically just cheesy buttered noodles, except since Italians do food so damned well, even their cheesy buttered noodles for nauseated pregnant women are blanketed in a light, beautifully emulsified sauce made by whisking some pasta cooking water into the other ingredients.
A Just-Right Alfredo Sauce Recipe
The Alfredo sauce recipe we created for this Chicken Alfredo is definitely cream-based in the American tradition, and it’s definitely rich. But it’s a little more sophisticated, too.
The sauce is enriched with an egg yolk, dressed up in velvet with a bit of pasta cooking water, made more flavorful with a generous amount of garlic, and brightened just enough with lemon juice. You can use Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese, and don’t forget plenty of freshly ground black pepper.
Hope you love it.
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tablespoons butter, divided
- 1 pound chicken tenders
- 12 ounces fettuccine
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese
- 5 ounces baby spinach
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Fine sea salt, to taste
- Fill a large pot halfway with very well salted water and bring to a boil.
- Whisk together the cream and egg yolk and set aside.
- In a deep 12-inch frying pan, melt one tablespoon of the butter over medium-high heat. Cut chicken tenders into bite-sized pieces. (Protip: try using kitchen shears to avoid dirtying a cutting board.) Place chicken into pan in a single layer and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Cook until lightly browned on the underside and opaque halfway through, about three minutes. Flip once and cook until just cooked through. Remove to a plate and set aside.
- When water boils, cook fettuccine until al dente according to package directions. Before draining pasta, scoop out 1/2 cup of the cooking water and set aside.
- Meanwhile, melt remaining tablespoon of butter over medium-low heat in the same pan. Add garlic and cook for one minute, stirring constantly. Pour in cream mixture. Simmer gently, adjusting heat if necessary to prevent boiling, while pasta cooks. When pasta is ready, stir lemon juice and cheese into sauce until smooth and creamy. Whisk in reserved pasta water until smooth. Add spinach and pasta, raise heat to medium, and toss with tongs for a couple of minutes until spinach is wilted and sauce clings nicely to pasta. Stir in chicken along with any accumulated juices. Off the heat, season with freshly ground black pepper (and salt if you like).
- Divide among four shallow bowls and serve immediately.