This week, I thought I’d go for something fresh, local, and seasonal.
Fresh? That’d be the cursory slivers of onion and green pepper smothered in butter you’ll find in casserole no. 1, as well as the perfunctory flecks of parsley in no. 2. Local? The canned tuna, packaged macaroni, and cornflakes (for the sophisticated topping on no. 2) all came from the Key Food just across the street — you can’t get a carbon footprint much smaller than that.
Seasonal? All right, you’ve got me there — although if there’s any time to eat monstrosities like these, it’s when the weather starts turning chilly, right?
The funny thing about Nonnie’s original casserole is that in some ways, it’s actually less gross than the traditional midcentury tuna-noodle concoction — or at least slightly more sophisticated.
That one is generally held together by a can of cream of mushroom soup or mayonnaise; this one’s bound instead by a homemade béchamel, which is a lot easier to whip up than that accented “e” might suggest. It’s basically mac and cheese with tuna, minus the mac — a bit of a head-scratcher, but not bad once you wrap your head around it.
The casserole that does actually incorporate macaroni? Well… that’s sort of another story. There, Nonnie tosses sophistication to the hills — instead of whisking flour, milk and butter together make one of French cuisine’s most hallowed mother sauces, you pretty much make a box of mac and cheese, then mix it with tuna and tomatoes (?!) and bake.
It’s an… interesting combination, although I suspect it might taste better if you add the secret ingredient: nostalgia. (I can comfortably say that before yesterday, I had never had the pleasure of eating tuna-noodle casserole. Now, thanks to doubling up on recipes, I have doomed myself to a week of the stuff. Pray for Mojo.)
Tuna Casserole; main text Nonnie’s, italicized asides my own
1 can tuna, drained [How big of a can? The second casserole recipe specified 6-7 ounces, which doesn’t seem to be a standard size anymore — so I put two 4 oz. cans in each recipe)
1/2 cup sliced green pepper
2 slices onion
3 tablespoons butter [Owww, my arteries!]
6 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk [In the interest of balancing out Mount Butter while still using milk with enough fat to make a credible sauce, I went with 2%]
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Melt butter, add green pepper and onion and sauté until onion is golden. Add flour and stir until well blended. Add salt and milk slowly, stirring constantly.
[There’s something weirdly satisfying and mad scientist-y about watching the way grease, gritty flour, and liquid milk combine to create something smooth and luxurious. If you’re a cooking novice, successfully making a béchamel is guaranteed to make you feel like a kitchen god. And so long as you don’t burn the roux (a.k.a. the flour mixed with butter that forms the sauce’s backbone), it really, truly is the easiest thing in the world; though sticklers might tell you otherwise, you don’t even have to heat the milk.]
Cook and stir until thick and smooth. Add tuna and lemon juice, place in a casserole and mix well. Bake in a pre-heated 450 oven 30 minutes, or until bubbly and thoroughly heated. [Be warned: It’s gonna look… kinda weird.]
Tuna Casserole with Macaroni; main text Nonnie’s, italicized asides my own
1 package macaroni and cheese dinner [For verisimilitude’s sake, I probably should’ve gone with neon-orange Kraft — but because Mikey is a millennial, he bought Annie’s for me instead]
3 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons snipped parsley [You snip it with kitchen sheers rather than cutting it with a knife to avoid bruising and get more sharply defined pieces, or so the Internet tells me]
1 6-7 oz. can tuna, drained, and flaked
1 8 oz. can tomatoes
2 tablespoons minced onion
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons cornflake crumbs [Note: If you like crunch, and who doesn’t, this is not nearly enough topping]
Cook macaroni according to package directions; drain, and add cheese (from package) and butter. [If you’re not obligated to finish Nonnie’s recipe, you might want to stop here.]
Mix, and add tomatoes (which have been broken up) and remaining ingredients, except crumbs, to macaroni. [I used kitchen sheers again here, snipping the tomatoes inside the can to chop them; it’s an easy, mess-free way to turn whole canned tomatoes into manageable pieces.]
Pour mixture into 1 1/2 quart casserole, sprinkle with crumbs and bake uncovered in 350 oven for 45 minutes or until hot. Makes 4 servings.
The verdict: The first is basically tuna-flavored béchamel, a dip masquerading as dinner — though it tastes like the essence of tuna melt, which is a great thing. The second is comfort food made strange, like something Miss Mush would serve in Wayside School’s mixed-up cafeteria. Mac and cheese is good; tuna is good; tomatoes are good. (Cornflakes are fine.) Thrown together and baked for 45 minutes, though, the dish becomes less than the sum of its parts, probably because those parts don’t coalesce in any meaningful way.
The way to go here, of course, is probably to combine the best parts of both casseroles — the first one’s homemade sauce, the second one’s inclusion of noodles — to create a franken-recipe that both appropriates an old-school tuna noodle casserole while appealing to modern sensibilities (made from scratch; not gross). Hell, you could even throw in a vegetable or two (peas? Kale?!?!) to make it more like a one-dish meal.
But I haven’t done that yet — because my fridge already contains 16 ounces of tuna, and what do you want from my life?
They’ll all get eaten, one way or another; weird as it is, the macaroni one isn’t inedible. And as it turns out, the noodle-free version actually has a trick up its sleeve: When schmeared on bread and toasted, it actually makes for a decent canapé. (And yes, I used that word because I wanted to get just one more accent mark into this post.)