This working class
marriage between canned tuna fish and pasta is the mainstay of many a tired mother on a week night, and as such has been often adulterated with such unhealthy and unnatural ingredients as canned soup, soup powder, powdered white sauce etc. It's too often bland while being too salty and, if cooked in a microwave, scaldingly hot but mushy and textureless. Of ordering it in a mega-chain so-called restaurant such as Sbarro
I do not even dare to speak.
Thing is, I really like pasta, and tuna, and easy dishes. So I've set out one night last week to see if I can't turn out something that will keep both the clock and the palate happy. In the event, I did cook my casserole in less time than it takes to node it, and it was good in the eyes of the lord and, more importantly, my extremely fussy and unadventurous cohabitant. I had decided to improve it in three main ways:
- Use good quality egg pasta
- Make my own white sauce
- Mix in a variety of decent cheeses
A note on each of these decisions:
- The reason for using dried egg pasta rather than poncy fresh stuff or indeed anything else is that it is tougher than other kinds of pasta and less likely to turn into mush in the process of being double cooked. I used penne, because I thought that farfalle and fusilli will fall apart and conchiglie will stick together to form unpleasant doughie clumps. I'm sure any other short pasta will work just as well, but I'm not so sure about macaroni or anything else long and slurpy.
- One always ends up with more white sauce than one needs, as the silly roux always seems to need more milk than you'd think to make it creamy and liquid. So always make a bit less than you think you'll need. It won't impact the quality of the casserole if you have a tad less than I did, and will prevent waste. It's important to grace the finished product with oodles of ground black pepper, as otherwise it increases the blandness quotient in this dish.
- I happened to have the remains of a pretty good cheeseboard lying around. I used mature English Cheddar, young French goat's cheese and fake Swiss Grouyere from the Co-Op. The latter also contributed an English Parmesan-syle cheese for the crust which was more than good enough for the purposes of this dish. I wouldn't waste money on expensive fancy cheeses for such a simple winter warmer.
I was also determined not to faff about too long, so the critical path analysis that went into this was quite detailed. Everything was cooking while everything else was cooking, IYSWIM. I'm noding the steps in the order I took them, and which took me about 25 minutes from raw to oven.
Here's how it went:
- 250g dry egg pasta
- 180-200g tuna chunks in brine
- 2 shallots or 1 medium onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- White sauce made from about 30g butter
- About 2 cups loosely packed grated cheese of 2 or more varieties
- 2 table spoon grated parmezan
- A little butter for frying
- Salt 'n Peppa
- Put a large pot of salted water on to boil and set the oven to pre-heat to about 180 degrees centegrade (Gas Mark 6, no speako ferenheito).
- Peel and chop the onion and garlic (quite coarsely, no need to be too meticulous here). Set them to sweat in the butter over a small flame. They will stay there quite happily until you're ready to combine them with the rest of the dish, just give them the occasional stir and watch that they're not browning too quickly.
- Drain the tuna, empty into a bowl and separate the chunks with a fork (this is where chunks, not steak, are handy - less separating to do).
- Make the white sauce and set aside. You don't want it too hot, or it'll make the cheese melt and go sticky before you want it to.
- Boil the pasta in an uncovered pot for half the time stated on the packet, then drain and immediately run under the cold tap. This prevents the pasta cooking further from its own internal heat. Drain extremely well.
- Now combine your ingredients in the bowl where the tuna and cheese already are. Don't add all the white sauce at once in case you drown the other ingredients. Mix thoroughly, you want every bit of pasta to have its own little escort of fried onion and garlic, cheese and tuna, wrapped in a warm fur coat of creamy white sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
- If, like me, you like the top crunchy layer of a casserole best, spread the mixture in a shallow dish, about 1 inch in thickness. If you like the gooey runny cheesy center, use a narrower deeper dish. Sprinkle the Parmesan evenly on top. Bake, uncovered, for about 25 minutes or until the top turns golden (probably a bit longer for the deeper version).
This will feed two hungry adults on its own, 3 or 4 if you add salad and garlic bread. Enjoy, and let me know how it came out!
Update: 22-Nov-2006, 6 months AWWD
OK, so these days I don't really make many things with buttery white sauce and creamy selections of cheeses - not that and keep my size 8 butt fitting into my new jeans too! But that doesn't mean I can't enjoy my food, so I've set about adapting many of my favourite dishes to a more low-fat lifestyle. Here's what you can do to make a pretty diet-friendly tuna casserole:
- Ditch the white sauce - all that butter and flour is not necessary for your wellbeing!
- Fry the onions and garlic in low-fat cooking spray rather than olive oil.
- Use a small amount - for the recipe above you would need less than 100gr, or a slightly short cup - of low-fat grated cheese. Weight Watchers have their own brand, as do the Co-Op here in the UK; any kind you can find will be OK though.
- Introduce yourself to the magic that is Philadelphia Extra Light. At only 5% fat, it weighs in on the light end of the diet spectrum, but still has all its wonderful creamines intact. For the quantity above, you would need about 400gr or two standard tubs, which will fill the gap left by the white sauce and that extra cheese. I have tried making this with other low-fat cream cheeses, but it just wasn't the same as Phillie - I'm sure they do horrible things to it with chemicals to achieve this effect, but I don't care!
Other than that, all the steps are the same - I even allowed myself a modest grating of parmesan cheese on top, cause hey, you only live once, right?