There are only a few things I won't eat: oxtails, fish with their heads still on, sea urchin, offal, and tuna casserole. Unfortunately, when I was growing up, tuna casserole made a regular appearance on the dinner table and while my mom tried to fancy it up by topping it with crushed potato chips and extra cheese, there was no way that I could get a forkful of the stuff down without gagging.
Several states away, Mr. B was dining on broiled chicken and red beans and rice, and, according to him, his mother never made tuna casserole, so imagine my surprise when he confided in me that it was one of his favorite dishes. "But," I asked, "if she never made it, how could it be one of your favorite dishes?" Turns out that Mr. B was friends with a neighborhood kid whose mother made tuna casserole fairly often and when she did, Mr. B would find an excuse to show up at their house around dinner time.
I'm a firm believer in pushing myself beyond the comfort of my culinary boundaries, especially if it will make Mr. B happy, so the first time that he asked me to make tuna casserole for him, I jumped on it. Who knew, however, that he wanted it more than once every decade? Anyhow, when he brought the subject up again last week, I gamely agreed. After all, it is Lent and I needed something to punch up my Friday dinner menu.
So it was that I decided that not only would I make a tuna casserole to beat all other tuna casseroles, but I would make one that even I could eat. I mean, really, when I thought about it, there wasn't a single ingredient in a tuna casserole--boiled eggs, noodles, cheese, peas, mushrooms, canned tuna--that I didn't already like, if not love, so what what was holding me back from savoring it with as much gusto as Mr. B?
I set to work making a traditional Béchamel sauce, then decided to go with a Mornay, so I added a couple of fistfuls of cheese. I labored over the toasting of breadcrumbs and the sauteing of mushrooms, carefully selecting the tuna, and making sure that the noodles were perfectly cooked and then, stood as if I were an artist and gazed upon my creation before sliding it into the oven and closing the door.
I poured a glass of wine and mentally penned a few lines of my memoir in which I would praise tuna casserole and lament the lost years during which I turned up my nose and refused to eat it. I would write how I uncovered the perfect balance of tuna and noodles of peas and egg, while reflecting meditatively on the right cheddar and the proper golden hue of the toasted crumbs. But, then, from the little oven that I so loved, came the most awful and fishy odor as I smelled, for the first time in years, tuna casserole!
I was unwillingly transported to the table of my youth and with such uncanny means was able to recall with precision every detail of my mother's kitchen right down to the intricately patterned wallpaper. I turned away in revulsion and with my glass of wine in hand, climbed the stairs and escaped to my room where a short while later, I heard the oven buzz and Mr. B rise from his chair and go off to the kitchen. Plates clacked and silverware clanged; I heard Mr. B open the drawer where I kept the pot holders and then, I heard the sound of the spoon as he dished himself up what I imagined was a hearty serving.
I turned up the volume on the television, emptied my wine glass, and buried myself underneath the comforter. I was not, I told myself, going back to the kitchen until he was finished and then, not until I was certain that he'd put away the leftovers--if there were any.
Hours later, when I felt it was safe, I emerged from my room and went to the kitchen. Sure enough, the casserole was almost entirely gone and when I peeked into the other room, Mr. B was fast asleep in his easy chair, slumbering, I'm sure, while dreaming of leftovers.
I tried not to breathe while I put the leftovers away and then, made myself a peanut butter sandwich. I'd light a few candles to get rid of the smell and while I was at it, I'd say a few prayers, too. Hopefully, Mr. B would get his fill and I would never have to make tuna casserole again.
Tuna Casserole for Mr. B
1 package of No Yolks egg noodles, cooked and drained
3 cans solid white tuna, drained
4 hard boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
1 cup of mushrooms, finely diced
1 cup frozen baby peas, thawed
1 small onion, finely minced
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
1/2 red pepper, finely minced
2 stalks of celery with leaves, finely diced
Toasted bread crumbs (melt 1 stick of butter in a pan and add 1 package of Panko; cook stirring constantly until golden brown)
salt, pepper, and hot sauce ( I use Crystals)
1. In a medium pan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter and heat until just beginning to foam. Add the onions, pepper, celery and garlic and cook until the vegetables are softened.
2. Add the mushrooms and continue cooking until the mushrooms are cooked through.
3. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the vegetables, tuna, chopped eggs, peas and egg noodles.
4. Pour in the Mornay sauce and stir to evenly distribute.
5. Season with salt and pepper and hot sauce to taste.
6. Spoon into a large, buttered casserole dish and top with the buttered breadcrumbs.
7. Bake in a 350 degrees oven until hot and bubbly; let sit for 5 minutes before serving.
Mel's Classic Mornay Sauce
4 tablespoons of butter
1/4 cup of all purpose flour
3 tablespoons of finely minced onions
2-3 cups of whole milk
2 cups of shredded extra sharp cheese
fresh grated nutmeg
1. Melt butter. When hot and beginning to foam, add onion and cook until the onion is soft and translucent.
2. Sprinkle flour over the butter and onion and stir for 2-3 minutes to 'toast' the flour.
3. Slowly add milk, whisking constantly ( I usually don't add more than 2 cups total at this point).
4. Bring to a boil an when thickened, reduce heat and whisk in cheese.
5. Season with fresh grated nutmeg, white pepper and salt.
6. If needed, add additional milk to achieve the preferred consistency. When I'm using a Mornay for a baked pasta, I like it a little thinner because it will thicken as it cooks by picking up the starches in the pasta.