A smart cook always has certain staples in the pantry or freezer. Besides the obvious, like flour, sugar, onion, garlic, celery, carrots, butter, and milk, there are some things that I always have on hand: tomato sauce, tomato paste, French onion soup and various broths (chicken, turkey, Thai), dried pastas and rice, frozen peas, frozen hamburger, steaks, and chicken breasts, frozen puff pastry, frozen nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans, and pine nuts), shredded cheeses, and albacore tuna in water. Always. I can concoct a gazillion recipes from that combination.
Tuna noodle casserole seems to have been a staple of everyone’s childhood. Everyone but mine. I don’t remember My Mother making it, because, in most households, it involved Cream of Mushroom soup, a staple in many pantries, but never in My Mother’s, because my family wouldn’t eat it. Instead, she made Tuna Burgers, what we now call a “Tuna Melt.” We’ll get to that some other day.
Tuna is a tricky thing. There was a time when I didn’t eat it, and some people still won’t, for a variety of reasons (yes, I’m pointing a finger, and you know who you are). I only eat albacore, the white tuna, packed in water. The Veterinarian didn’t understand that. He was perfectly happy to eat that dark stuff packed in oil, when we were newly-married college students.
“Look at how cheap it is!” he would insist.
“Yeah, but it’s no bargain, if I’m not going to eat it.”
We compromised with light tuna packed in water. Mixed with a (very) little mayo, spread on white bread and consumed at football games with a Thermos of whiskey sours (one can lemonade, one can water, one can whiskey).
One day, I discovered a recipe using Rice-a-Roni to make “Tuna Jambalaya” (ok, ok, don’t judge me or the recipe until you’ve tried it), which used enough sweet pepper to camouflage the taste of the tuna, but, eventually, I concocted my own tuna casserole recipe.
I rarely eat pasta any more (since I created my own stupid diet that omits pasta, rice, and potatoes — it worked for me, but I hate it), so I rarely make this. In the bleak mid-winter, it does warm my tummy and my heart, especially with a glass of white wine.
Tuna Noodle (Pasta) Casserole
2 cups uncooked farfalle (bow-tie pasta), cooked, drained, and set aside
2 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons minced onion
2 Tablespoons flour
Salt & cayenne pepper to taste
2 Tablespoons white wine or dry Vermouth
1 cup fat-free milk
½ cup frozen peas, thawed
1 5-ounce can of albacore tuna, drained
½ cup finely shredded Swiss cheese
Preheat oven to 375°. Butter a 2-quart casserole dish and set aside.
In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add onion and stir for 30 seconds. Gradually stir in flour, whisking until smooth. Cook and whisk for 30 seconds. Very gradually stir in the wine or Vermouth until smooth. Very gradually stir in the milk. Continue to stir until the white sauce (roux) has the consistency of a milkshake that slides effortlessly through your straw.
Stir in the thawed peas, the tuna, and the cooked pasta. Gently toss to coat; spoon into prepared casserole dish. Top evenly with the shredded Swiss cheese.
Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes to heat through and melt the cheese. Increase heat to “Broil” until the cheese browns lightly. Remove from oven and serve.
Notes on making roux:
A roux is a wonderful base for so many dishes. It can run from a thin sauce that is the basis for gravy or crème anglaise through the medium sauces for pot pies and scalloped potatoes to a thick, dark base used in Cajun and Creole cooking (that roux that the late Chef Paul Prudhomme called “Cajun napalm”). I never use a roux to thicken a soup. I prefer reduction of stock, a purée of vegetables, or a touch of sweet or sour cream.
Two things are important in a roux, that it be smooth, which takes slow incorporation of the flour into the fat, and that it is cooked enough to dispel the “raw flour” taste, without burning it (unless you’re making a dark roux).