Sunday, January 27, 2013

Love, 80s Style: Tuna Fish and Rice Casserole

This snazzy, tie-wearing lady is my momma, circa 1985. When I imagine the mom of my childhood, she looks like this and is making my favorite high-sodium, low-budget comfort food: Tuna fish and rice casserole.

It’s a one-dish, four-ingredient casserole that’s straight out of the 1950s housewife playbook. In fact, the original recipe, which might have been nicked from the side of a can*, called for a topping of crumbled potato chips. My mother wisely omitted this ingredient (her mother did not).

Even without the chips, my brother and I would BEG for this meal. We danced gleefully when it was on the menu. We hovered while it was being made and stalked the oven window while we waited for it to finish baking. Even now, it’s our top request when my mom wants to make us a special dinner. Once it’s served, we’re both instantly seven years old again and reverting back to the way we ate it when we were kids, flattening it out on our plates and taking bites in a specific pattern. (Obviously, yes, we were weird then, and we’re weird now).
Because I live in fear that the casserole’s key ingredient, Campbell’s Condensed Cheddar Cheese Soup, will someday be discontinued, I occasionally hoard cans of it when I see it at the grocery store. If I ever do hear that it’s going off the market, I will do my best to buy it in bulk, Today Sponge-style, and will only use it for people that I deem casserole-worthy.
I’m pleased to report that the tuna fish and rice casserole obsession has infiltrated a fourth generation: My daughter, Chloe, who recently declared herself a vegetarian, has made an exception for fish because she couldn’t bear to live a life without tuna fish and rice casserole. Such is her love.
I make this meal sometimes at home, and I encourage you to as well. But mostly I still beg my mom to make it, and if you want the best version, you’ll have to do that, too.
Tuna Fish and Rice Casserole
Health-wise, this meal seems all kinds of wrong, but it tastes all kinds of right. But at $5 a pop and five minutes to prepare, you can’t beat it for convenience and price. Make it a little unhealthier by piling on the butter and salt.
One can of Campbell’s Condensed Cheddar Cheese Soup
One can of tuna, drained
About 4/5 of the empty soup can filled with milk
1 ½ cups of uncooked rice (My mom says the original recipe called for Minute Rice specifically. But many 50s and 60s recipes were marketing driven, so I'll leave the rice decision up to you).
Cook rice according to the package directions
Grease a 9x13-inch casserole dish
Whisk together the soup and milk in a large bowl
Stir in the tuna and cooked rice
Bake in 375-degree oven until bubbly, about 30-40 minutes
Let it set for 15 minutes before serving
*Note: My Auntie Jackie (mom's sister) says: "My mother supposedly made this up, or at least she said she did, in later years."

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bread: The final frontier

I’m a decent cook and baker, but there’s one food I’ve never been able to master, one food that’s always made me feel like a foodie imposter. That food is bread, with its wily alchemy and its temperamental yeast (an ingredient that you might KILL if you handle it incorrectly. That’s intense).
Bread takes time. And patience. And muscles. And then there are the imprecise instructions in most bread recipes, like kneading the dough for a long time…but not too long! Or the fact that your bread will misbehave like a spoiled, petulant diva if you don’t cover it with a towel and let it rest for a good long time. Is this a food or one of the real housewives?
But I am happy to report that my days of fighting with and being scared of bread are over because I have found a recipe that’s easy, no-fuss, and even tastes good as part of a sandwich. And if you happen to have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, this recipe requires about five minutes of labor that's basically limited to measuring ingredients. I’m not kidding.
It’s a gluten miracle!
I should note that my husband, Brian, has replaced this bread with the whole wheat potato bread he usually makes his sandwiches on. He also revealed to me this morning that said potato bread actually tastes like “butt,” so my homemade bread must offer some modicum of relief.
Anyway, here it is! Happy baking!
Oatmeal Sandwich Bread
Recipe from the side of King Arthur Flour’s bag of unbleached bread flour
3 cups (12 ¾ ounces) of unbleached bread flour
1 cup (3 ounces) old-fashioned oats
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) butter, softened
1 ½ teaspoons of salt
3 tablespoons of honey
2 teaspoons of instant yeast or 1 packet of active dry yeast
1 ¼ cups (10 ounces) lukewarm milk
In a large mixing bowl, or in the bowl of an electric mixer, combine all of the ingredients, mixing to form a ragged-looking dough. (Don't worry if you still see chunks of butter. It will all melt when it's kneading).
Knead the dough, either by hand (10 minutes) or by machine (5 minutes using the bread hook on your Kitchen Aid mixer).
Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover it with a towel, and allow it to rest for 1 hour; it'll become quite puffy, although it may not double in bulk.
Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled work surface, and shape it into a log.

Place the dough in a lightly greased 8 1/2 x 4 1/2-inch loaf pan, cover the pan (with lightly greased plastic wrap or foil), and allow the dough to rise for 60-90 minutes, until it's crested 1 to 2 inches over the rim of the pan.

Bake the bread in a preheated 350°F oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center registers 190°F. If the bread appears to be browning too quickly, tent it with aluminum foil for the final 10 minutes of baking.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Cozy soup and grilled ham and cheese for a cold winter night

There’s nothing quite as comforting to me as a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of soup. It’s perfect for warming up after an afternoon of sledding, making you feel better when you’re sick on the couch, or calming your nerves the night before your wedding while you obsessively watch the Weather Channel hoping that the approaching Nor’Easter will magically disappear from the Doppler screen.

The Nor’Easter didn’t disappear, and I managed to get married without incident. But I’ve kept with me the memories, not only of a great wedding and 60-mile-per-hour winds, but also of that yummy grilled cheese sandwich and the reassuring feeling of my fingers around a warm soup bowl.

Since the weather’s been cruelly cold over the past few days, grilled cheese sandwiches and soup were in order for a frigid Friday night this week. But with some friends coming over, I decided that slapping American cheese on a couple slices of potato bread, cracking open a can of condensed soup, and calling it a day just wouldn’t do. Some fancying up was in order.

The result? Grilled ciabatta bread filled with ooey, gooey gruyere and slices of uncured ham, pears, and onions, plus a Crock Pot filled with butternut squash and apple soup. (I also made wilted collard greens, but I thought they sucked, so I’ll just pretend they never happened).

Aside from being cozy and delish, this meal is one that can be prepared almost entirely in advance. If you make the soup the day before, you can warm it on the stove when you’re ready to eat. You can also slice all of the sandwich components ahead of time, and even soften the pear and onion slices, too.

Butternut squash and apple soup
Serves 4-6

One butternut squash
Three apples
Four cups vegetable broth
Brown sugar
Nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste


Peel the butternut squash and cut it up into one-inch cubes.

Peel the apples and cube those, too.

Put the apples and squash on a cookie sheet, toss with a couple tablespoons of olive oil, a heavy pinch of salt, and about a tablespoon of brown sugar.

Roast in a 400 degree oven, stirring every 10 minutes, until everything is soft, about 30-35 minutes.

Transfer the squash and apples into a soup or stock pot and add about 4 cups of vegetable broth (You can make it a little richer with a splash of half and half, but it’s totally optional).

Add about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg, depending how much you like.

Using a food processor or immersion blender, blend the squash mixture until smooth. Add more broth, if you’d like your soup a little thinner.

(If you aren't in the mood for grilled cheese, try this soup with some homemade garlic bread).

Grilled gruyere sandwiches with pear, onion, and ham
Serves 4-6

About one pound block of gruyere cheese
Eight slices of deli ham (I like uncured), each cut in half
One onion
Two pears
Ciabatta bread, cut into 16 half-inch slices
One stick of very soft butter


Using a mandolin* or your crazy knife skilz, slice the gruyere cheese into 1/8-inch slices.

Slice the peeled onion and cored pears into 1/4 –inch slices.

Spread the onion and pear slices in an even layer on a cookie sheet and roast in a 400 degree oven until they’re softened, 10-15 minutes.

Let the onions and pears cool on a plate in the fridge while you prep the bread slices by smearing one side of every slice with butter.

Assemble the sandwiches on the unbuttered side of the bread with a layer of cheese, two half-slices of ham, 3-4 pear slices, a few onions, and a little more cheese (if you have enough); top with another slice of bread. Butter should be facing out on both sides of the sandwich.

Grill on an electric griddle set to 300 degrees or on a frying pan on a medium-high stove. Adjust the heat as needed to ensure that the bread doesn’t brown before the cheese is melted. When one side is golden-brown, flip and repeat on the other side.

Serve the soup and sandwiches with a warm fleece blanket on the couch.

* I’m not usually one to demand the use of fancy kitchen gadgets, but a mandolin makes it much easier to slice everything thinly and evenly.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Letter to my body

Dear Body,

Hey. How’s it going? I don’t say this enough, but thanks. Thanks for being my ride through life. Even it you’re a little bit sorer and a lot pastier than ever before, I want you to know that I appreciate you. Sure, we may not always see eye-to-eye (Zits at 32, really? And that rogue chin whisker the other day? Not cool.) And you might have punished me a few times for too much wine and too much sun with raging headaches and blazing skin.

But in the long run, you’re a miracle. You’ve grown a person, been cut open and healed, run lots more miles than I thought you ever could, spooned, snuggled, smiled, cried, hugged, and kissed. You’re always with me and put up with a lot. I promise to do my best to give you lots of good food and water, more bubble baths and more sleep, and many, many more hugs.