Sunday, May 6, 2012

Tuna Noodle Casserole

When I was growing up, I was the kid in the lunchroom pulling out liverwurst and cream cheese sandwiches. Leftover pate and crackers from a picnic dinner. Large sandwiches with munster cheese. Yoplait yogurts (the height of yogurt fashion then) and little Babybell cheeses. I loved it, and I wasn't sure what the big deal was when friends would make gagging noises and react with melodramatic squeals of 'Eww!'. It was just what we ate at home, didn't everybody eat this stuff? Didn't they all eat olives and capers and anchovies? Caesar salad with 1 minute eggs?

Apparently not. As I'm getting older, I'm appreciating more and more the rich food culture my parents passed on to me. Really, it made for a very balanced diet as a child. I didn't like cake. I didn't like PB & Js, fish sticks or corn dogs. I hated Kraft macaroni and cheese. But, I loved brussel sprouts, sauerkraut, hot salsas, mustard, cheeses, pickles, tomatoes with pepper and blue cheese. I like garden fresh peas and blackberries. I liked eating chives from the garden. 

One day, though, I was staying late at the babysitter's. My parents had some meetings to go to, so my brother and I had dinner with Miss Karen. She made tuna noodle casserole. And let me tell you, it was a revelation. I have no idea why this comfort food won out over the others, but it did, in a big way. I already loved tuna salad, but what was this. Hot tuna? With...bread crumbs and.... noodles! Mmm!

Her version was likely made with Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, which was my go to recipe throughout college. I loved the Stouffer's microwavable tuna noodle casserole, too. But, now that I live in China, there is no Campbell's soup or Stouffer's. All I have are the raw ingredients. I've tried many recipes, but they never had the right umami level that the likely MSG laden pre-made versions had. Finally, in desperation I made this improv version one night. It is rich in umami, and captures the pre-made versions' balance of flavors, but goes beyond it. Now it's the only version I'll make. It is not as fast to put together as the Stouffer's or Campbell's versions, but if you are limiting your intake of preservatives and artificial ingredients, this will give you the taste you crave, without the extra unknowns.

Tuna Noodle Casserole
Serves 2-4

For the casserole:
3 thin stalks of Chinese celery, or 1 ½ large stalks, diced
½ a medium red onion, diced
3 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 ½ cups rough chopped mushrooms
2 cans of oil packed tuna
 1 ¾ cups green peas, cooked
1 ½  tablespoons of cooking wine/sherry

½ tsp dark soy sauce
1/3 lb or 160 grams of egg noodles, cooked
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
Seasoning or Celery Salt (this is important, I mean it)
Salt and pepper

For the white sauce:
1 clove garlic minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 ½ cups milk
Seasoning salt

For the topping:
2 pieces of bread toasted until dry and made into crumbs
1 tsp dried thyme
   3 tablespoons finely grated parmesan
2 tablespoons butter

Celery leaves chiffonaded

        Prep all ingredients into their appropriate forms, meaning do some rinsing, dicing, chopping and mincing. Cook your peas by either boiling them until bright green and juicy or microwaving as per instructions on the bag. Put your cooked peas into a large bowl.

      COOK THE VEGETABLES. In a medium sized pan, melt a ½ tbsp of the butter and add a little splash of olive oil so it doesn’t burn. Heat over medium until the butter is melted, then add your onion and celery. You want to sweat them, not fry, so keep the heat lowish and wait until just before they become translucent to add 2 of your minced garlic cloves. Stir until things are translucent and fragrant (these are aromatics, after all). Salt and pepper them, mix, then add to the bowl with the peas.

In the same pan, melt the other ½ tablespoon of butter and your olive oil. Mushrooms are notoriously moisture hungry, so once the butter is melted and you add the mushrooms, stir vigorously to coat. Continue cooking over medium heat until they start to release some of their water. Now add 1 minced garlic clove, cook for another minute or two, then add your soy sauce and cooking wine. Turn the heat up a little and wait for some of that moisture to cook off. Continue to watch and stir. You don’t want your mushrooms to be dry, you just don’t want all the liquid loose either. You want it in the mushrooms. Once mushrooms are cooked tender and some of the excess moisture has cooked off, transfer mushrooms and any left over juices to the bowl of the other vegetables. 

      Open and drain your cans of tuna, break up any large chunks and add to the vegetable mixture. Lightly seasoning or celery salt the whole shebang…. LIGHTLY!

      Cook your noodles in salted water until al dente. Drain, and add to the vegetable bowl. 

      MAKE THE SAUCE. In the same pan and over medium-low heat, add the olive oil and butter for the sauce. Allow butter to melt and lightly foam, don’t let it get too hot though, or it’ll burn your garlic...which is gross. Add your 1 clove of minced garlic and stir. Turn the heat down if it looks too hot, let it become fragrant. Now, add the flour SLOWLY, mixing all the while. We’re making a classic roux here, and you don’t want lumps, nor do you want it to brown at all, so make sure you watch the heat. Continuously stir as you add the flour. If it looks too dry add a tiny amount of olive oil. Once fully incorporated, stir for another minute to make sure it’s all warm. 

Slowly pour in the milk, stirring continuously and attempting to fully incorporate the liquid. The roux will …seize a little, it’ll look like a failure for the first few minutes. Keep stirring and keep slowly adding the milk and eventually the sauce will set up. If it still looks too dry after you’ve add all the milk, go ahead and add a little more. Once it’s a liquid, cook it for 2-3 minutes over medium-low to thicken it up. Don’t burn it though, be calm. Add seasoning or celery salt to taste and some pepper. Turn off the heat and add about 1 ½ cups of the sauce to the vegetables/noodle/ tuna bowl you have already. 

      PREHEAT your oven to 375F~150C.

      MAKE THE TOPPING. Toast two pieces of whatever kind of bread you have around until they are lightly browned and very dry. Take them out and let them cool down. Transfer to a small ziplock bag, and crush them into crumbs. Now add your parmesan, thyme and pepper, shake to combine. Melt the butter. Chiffonade the celery leaves, but do not add them to the bread crumbs.

      CONSTRUCT THE CASSEROLE.  Put the veggie/tuna/noodle/sauce mixture into an ungreased, oven-proof dish. Glass is nice for this. Top with an even layer of the breadcrumb  mixture, drizzle the butter over the top. I apologize for not having a legitimately sized oven/baking dish size to tell you. I cooked this in two small pie pans. The recipe makes enough to feed 2 pretty hungry people dinner and have a small portion left for lunch the next day. It would probably feed 4 normal people for dinner with sides and no leftovers. I will hazard a guess and say that an 8x8 baking dish would probably suffice as long as it’s a little deep… but I’m not one to say you can’t use cake pans, loaf pans or whatever floats your boat to cook this. Use whatever you have that’s at least about 1 1/2  inches deep and will fit the amount of casserole. I trust you.

      BAKE the casserole for about 10 minutes, you really just want to heat it through, all your ingredients are already fully cooked. When you think it’s warmed through, turn the oven to broil and broil the top until lightly golden brown.

      Take it out, sprinkle with celery chiffonade, and serve piping hot. I like this topped with a good amount of pepper flakes with a mixed green salad that includes more celery leaves, cherry tomatoes, some blue cheese and balsamic dressing on the side. But that’s just me. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Sardine Pasta Puttanesca

The boyfriend is away this weekend, which means everything is my pace all the time. We've had a fair amount of long distance in our time together, so it's only strange for the first few hours he's gone. And though I do miss him, even if it's just for 3 days, I do like to luxuriate in my time while he's off traipsing through the mountains. I like that the Man is active, but sometimes I just need a low key day... or 3.

Last night, I went out with some friends for sangria. Came home to my empty apartment, where I'd left a small light on for myself, and played some music while I got ready for bed. I did an olive oil, honey, sugar scrub on my face and let it soak in while I did the dishes. I'd cleaned the kitchen spotless earlier, and I much prefer doing  dishes in an otherwise clean kitchen.

I woke up early today, made a pot of tea, and then read for a while in bed with the window and curtains open. I could see 4 mountains deep today, which is unheard of. The rained washed away the mists last night.When I got up, I made the bed. It rained hard last night, so I checked on my flowers and plants on the balcony. Hung some clothes out to dry. Put more clothes in the laundry, and then made a very small, meatless version of Eggs Florence for brunch.

Then, for a while I planned my evening baking plan on King Arthur Flour's website, as a friend has a birthday tomorrow and I'll be making her a surprise something. But at some point, 5 o'clock rolled around. And then 5:30. And then it was 6 and I was faintly hungry. I didn't want to go to the store just for me, so I scanned the pantry and threw together a Pasta Puttanesca-esque dish. This was insanely delicious, and a rare treat for me, as the Man is an avid olive/caper/canned fish hater. It's really quick to put together, and it's light but also very satisfying. I'd say make it for a date, because it tastes special (at least to me) but... the ingredient list will give you a good idea about your breath situation post consumption.

Whenever you serve it, know that it's not only tasty, but healthy, as sardines are rich in protein and nutrients like vitamins A and D, and are one of the most concentrated sources of omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are very heart healthy! They are low in calories, but keep you feeling full, so are very diet friendly. Plus, because they're on the bottom of the seafood chain, they don't concentrate heavy metals, and they're one of the cheapest, most eco-friendly seafood purchases you make since sardines are plentiful and sustainable! Enjoy!

Sardine Pasta Puttanesca
serves 2 for a light dinner

300 grams of pasta, any shape, spaghetti or fettuccine are traditional, but I made mine with spirals
2-3 slices of thick sliced, raw bacon, chopped
1/2 a medium red onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 can of sardines packed in oil
1/2 cup or about 20 green olives, pitted and smashed
2 tbsp tomato paste

1. Put some salted water on to boil. Turn on some music you like, I prefer something Spanish. Once al dente, drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the water.

2. In a medium sized pan, saute your chopped bacon over medium high heat. Once some fat has rendered, add your onions and cook until almost translucent.

3.Add the garlic, olives and 2-3 sardines with their oil, and cook for about 3 minutes to heat through and meld flavors, breaking up the fish as you go. Add the tomato paste and enough water to make a light sauce, not too wet, just not dry. Thrown your cooked pasta into the pan and stir to coat. Serve!

This would be equally delicious with:
-spinach added near the end to just wilt it
-a tsp to a tbsp of capers
-kalamata olives instead of green
-parsley added at the end.

Mix it up and try some combinations!

I had mine with a side salad dressed with peppered tomatoes, red onions, feta cheese and drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, plus some slices of baguette with some extra sardine I had leftover.