Friday, January 13, 2006

Friday Food: Tuna Casserole

OK, there wasn't a groundswell of interest in recipes, but here's one anyway. This is not Kelly's healthy tuna casserole, but neither is it the old can-of-soup variety. My kids would eat this every night if I would make it. Especially Nick.

1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups milk (skim is fine)
1 tsp mustard, optional

1 lb. pasta; shells or fusili seem to work best

1-2 cans tuna, packed in water (or, I suppose, oil, but I never buy that kind. Actually I buy the kind that has no salt added, too.)

1-2 cups frozen tiny baby peas. Or not so tiny ones, if you don't mind them. They seem kind of icky to me, but I like the little tiny ones. You don't need to thaw these.

2-3 cups shredded cheese of your choice. I usually use 2 cups of colby-jack and a cup or so of parmesan or romano, but it depends what I have in the house. Something that melts well is what you're going for, and since you're probably feeding kids, don't bother with really good cheese. I buy bags of shredded stuff and throw them in the freezer, then pull out whatever I have and use it. "Italian" blends work fine, as do "Mexican." Real cheese that you shred yourself is probably better.

breadcrumbs, optional

OK. So you have your ingredients. Turn your oven on to 350 or so (400 if you're in a hurry) and make sure you have a casserole dish that holds a pound of cooked pasta.

Put up a pan of water for the pasta. While you wait for it to boil, melt the butter in a medium sauce pan. Medium heat. When the butter's melted (don't let it burn!), whisk in the flour. When it collects into a sort of pasty mess at the bottom of your pan, add the milk and whisk madly to break up the clumps. (If you heated the milk beforehand this might go more smoothly, but if you just keep whisking it will work with cold milk out of the fridge.)

Keep whisking while you heat the milk to just below boiling. Turn the heat down a bit if you need to. The sauce will thicken up quite a bit. Whisk the mustard, if you're using it, in as it thickens. (I find it makes a big difference.)

If you already knew how to make a bechamel (aka white sauce, aka cream sauce) you could have skipped those last two paragraphs.

When the sauce has thickened take it off the heat. When the pasta water boils, duh, add the pasta and boil it until tender but not mushy. Drain the pasta and run cold water over it to stop it cooking.

Dump the pasta back in the pasta pan. Pour the sauce over it and mix it together. Then add the tuna (breaking it up in the can a bit before you dump it in) and the peas. Mix it all together so that the tuna and peas are evenly distributed.

Put half the pasta/sauce/tuna/peas mixture in the bottom of the casserole. Scatter half the cheese over it. Then the rest of the pasta, and the rest of the cheese. If you like, blanket the top with bread crumbs. Crushed up Ritz crackers or potato chips would be decadent and tasty. Pop the whole thing in the oven and bake until the top is golden and crusty. This will take 15-20 minutes at 400, up to half an hour at lower heat. Since everything was already cooked before it went in, all you really need to do is melt the cheese and brown the top, but if you have to go take a shower or something and need it to be in the oven longer, you might cover the casserole when you put it in, then take the top off and blast the heat up to 425 or so for the last few minutes.

This is, obviously, not haute cuisine. It's comfort food. You could probably leave the tuna out and add more cheese and call it mac-n-cheese, though there are contrary opinions on this one. (That article's from the NYTimes so you may not be able to read it all; the operative phrase is "vexatious infatuation with white sauce, a noxious paste of flour-thickened milk." So, you've been warned about the sauce. My kids like it. I do, too.) The white Moosewood cookbook, Moosewood Restaurant Cooks At Home, has a fancy version with cauliflower, onions, and tomatoes, but my kids won't eat that so why bother? This, they will eat.

[Edited to add: Masha, I don't cook in the mornings; it's all I can do to feed myself before leaving the house at 7 am, and this is just the kind of mindless thing I can do at 5 or 6 pm. But, if you wanted, you could certainly make this ahead and then put it in the fridge. It would just take about forty-five minutes, I think, to heat it up when you were ready to eat. But, really, I assume you know how to make something like this already...]


Susan said...

This post made my stomach roar. Really loudly. Alas, nobody in my family would eat it. My husband is averse to anything creamy, and my kids hate tuna. So would you please invite me to your house some Friday night?

expatmama said...

I am definitely going to make this. And I didn't post before, but I'd like to see more recipes!

Dawn said...

I've been searching for the perfect TNC recipe...WITHOUT THE SOUP! I think I've found it! This sounds exactly like what I've been looking for. It's simple, yet I'm sure tastes 10x better than making it with soup. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I am a very busy full time dad who makes dinner about once every 2 weeks. This recipe is one of my standards having found it a few years ago. I confess that I spent about 30 minutes today searching for it (we don't usually have campbell's mushroom soup as every other recipe calls for!) - I confused 'midlife mama' with 'hot mama' in my search hence the delay - interesting, go figure. Thank you for posting this - we (including ages 8 and 4) really appreciate it! D