Not Your Mother’s Tuna Noodle Casserole

We all have our favorite comfort foods, and one of mine is tuna noodle casserole, that time-honored combo of noodles, tuna and peas in a creamy mushroom sauce.

In the traditional (read ’50s housewife) version of this dish, the sauce is supplied by a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. And if convenience is the No. 1 consideration, that’s the way you want to make it.

But I’ve got this thing for mushrooms. Good mushrooms. So my version of tuna noodle casserole includes a from-scratch sauce made with real mushrooms. I chop up fresh button mushrooms and flavor them with a bit of dried shiitake or  porcini.

That’s as upscale as I get. This is supposed to be comfort food, after all. But you could fancy it up even more by using fresh tuna, grilled or pan-fried and cut into chunks, and tossing in some fresh herbs. As for the noodles, use the traditional egg noodles or substitute rotini, farfalle or penne.

If you’re in a hurry or prefer your tuna noodle casserole creamier, serve it as is out of the pan. If not, scatter some bread crumbs and Parmesan over it and bake it till the top gets a bit crusty.

Not Your Mother’s Tuna Noodle Casserole
Author: Ginger
Serves: 8
Flavorful mushrooms in a homemade sauce fancy up that old comfort food, Tuna Noodle Casserole.
  • 1 pound dried egg noodles or pasta (such as rotini or penne)
  • [i]Sauce:[/i]
  • 1 cup chopped fresh mushrooms
  • 3 tablespoons dried shiitake or porcini mushroom pieces, reconstituted in 1/2 cup water (save the liquid)
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon seafood seasoning (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups milk or half-and-half
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt, to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2  cans tuna in water, drained and chunked
  • 1 cup frozen peas, defrosted
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • [i]Topping (optional):[/i]
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  1. Boil the noodles according to package directions. About a minute before the end of the cooking time, toss in the peas. When noodles are cooked, drain.
  2. While noodles are cooking, make the sauce. Heat the butter in a large pot, then add the mushrooms, onion and seafood seasoning. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring, or until softened. Sprinkle with flour and stir, then gradually stir in the mushroom soaking liquid and the milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until sauce thickens to the consistency of a creamy soup.
  3. Add the drained noodles to the pot and toss with the sauce. Add the tuna and peas and toss well. Cook until the peas are heated through.
  4. If desired, spoon the noodle mixtured into a buttered casserole dish or pan. Toss together the bread crumbs, Parmesan and olive oil, and sprinkle over the noodles. Bake in a preheated 375-degree F. oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until top is lightly golden and turning crusty.


Croque Monsieur: a Recipe for Heaven

So, I’m watching the DVD of “It’s Complicated,” with Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin (a movie I recommend, by the way), in which Streep’s character, Jane, owns a bakery-cafe. She’s making dinner for Adam the architect (Martin) and serving Croque Monsieur, the classic French hot ham and cheese sandwich. Adam’s telling her how delicious they are and I’m sitting there thinking, “It’s been forever since I had a Croque Monsieur.”

So the next day I whipped up some, and they’re just as delicious as I remember. While there are quite a few variations on this bistro classic, I prefer my Croque Monsieur close to the original: ham and cheese on good bread, generously buttered and broiled until crisp. Sheer heaven. As a bonus, this is just about the easiest dinner you can make.

Serve these with a simple salad. I made a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and baby greens, tossed with a red wine vinaigrette.

Croque Monsieur
Author: Ginger
Serves: 4
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon herbes de Provence or other dried leaf herbs of your choice (tarragon, basil, sage, etc.), to taste
  • 8 slices good bread
  • 4 ounces top-quality baked ham, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups grated Gruyere or other Swiss cheese
  • 1/4 cup grated fresh Parmesan
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  1. Preheat the broiler on “low.”
  2. In a small bowl, mix together the mustard, mayonnaise and herbs. Place 4 of the bread slices on an ungreased baking sheet, and spread the mustard-mayonnaise evenly over them. Top with the ham and sprinkle 1/2 cup cheese over each bread slice. Top with the remaining bread slices. Using 1 tablespoon butter per sandwich, spread both sides of each sandwich with butter.
  3. Broil for 5 minutes, then turn and sprinkle the sandwiches with the grated Parmesan. Broil another 5 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the sandwiches are golden and crisp. Serve immediately.

A Buttery Wild Salmon Chowder

So, I had some wild salmon in the freezer. Normally I wouldn’t freeze it but I had bought a big package of it, then discovered there was no one home that day to eat it (teenage kids, you know).

I also had a taste for butter after finally seeing “Julie & Julia,” about Julia Child’s years in France and about the blogging lass who made every recipe in “The Art of French Cooking.” (Didn’t care all that much for the movie, but that’s another story.) Julia Child had no use for health food or people who badmouthed butter or red meat or anything else delicious. “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream” is one of her oft-quoted maxims. (She was referring to a specific recipe, but who can help but expand the sentiment to embrace food, and life, in general?)

Better yet, use both. So, I thawed the salmon,  got out the butter and cream, and went to work. The result was an outrageously good salmon chowder. If you’re one of those people who fear butter and cream, this is not the recipe for you. If you’re one of those people who love cream, butter and real salmon, not necessarily in that order, this recipe will have you licking the soup bowl.

Cooking the salmon before adding it to the chowder adds a step, but don’t skip it. It makes this chowder.

Wild Salmon Chowder

Makes 8 servings

  • 2 to 2 1/2 pounds wild salmon fillets
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup finely chopped onion
  • 6 cups chicken broth or seafood stock
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon seafood seasoning (such as Old Bay seasoning), or to taste
  • 4 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 1 cup canned or frozen corn kernels
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • Salt and white pepper to taste

Minced fresh parsley, finely chopped scallions or minced fresh chives for garnish (optional)

Cook the salmon: In a large skillet, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter. Add the salmon, skin side down, and cook over medium-high heat, turning once,  until the salmon is just cooked through (it’s best if the fish is still a bit red in the center of the thickest portion). Remove the salmon from the pan. Do not discard the pan drippings. Remove and discard the salmon skin and separate the meat into bite-size chunks. Set aside.

Make the chowder: In a soup pot, heat 2 tablespoons butter. Add the onion and cook over medium-low heat until translucent. Stir in the broth, water, seafood seasoning and potatoes. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then cook over medium-low heat until the potatoes are cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in the corn.

While the potatoes are cooking, heat the reserved salmon pan drippings in the skillet. Stir in the flour. Stir in about a cupful of the hot cooking broth from the soup pot, then stir in the cream. Cook over medium heat, stirring, to make a smooth, somewhat thickened cream sauce. (If the flour is lumpy, whisk the sauce thoroughly.)

Add the cream mixture to the contents of the soup pot and stir. Stir in the reserved salmon and cook over medium-low heat just until heated through. Season with salt and pepper, garnish as desired, and serve immediately.

A Sassy Autumn Slaw

After a trip to Costco, I wound up with what seemed like 400 pounds of baby carrots in my crisper drawer. There are only so many carrots one can munch on, so I decided to make a colorful sweet-and-sour autumn slaw: lighter on the cabbage, heavy on carrots, and with a bit of apple to sweeten it. A lemon-ginger dressing brought it all together nicely.

This would make a nice side dish for Thanksgiving.

Autumn Slaw with Lemon-Ginger Dressing

Serves 6 to 8

  • 2 cups shredded or grated carrots
  • 1 cup shredded green cabbage (preferably savoy)
  • 1 tart apple, such as Granny Smith, peeled and finely chopped
  • Dressing:
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons honey (or sugar), to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup olive or vegetable oil, to taste

Toss the carrot, cabbage, and apple in a medium bowl.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, honey, salt, and ginger. Gradually whisk in the oil. Pour enough dressing over the carrot mixture to moisten it thoroughly, and toss to coat.

Kale: Show It Some Respect Already

“What is this?” asked the produce market cashier, holding up the bag of dark leafy greens.

“Kale,” I replied, wondering yet again if more than six people in America know what this vegetable is and that you can actually eat it. I’d wager that most Americans know kale only as that frilly, dark green stuff they use to decorate salad bars, or the pretty purple and green frilly ornamental plant that survives in the garden well into winter.

Kale is the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables—it don’t get no respect. That’s a shame because not only is kale outrageously nutritious (an outstanding source of vitamins A, C and K, and a good source of iron and calcium, for a mere 15 calories per 1/2 cup cooked), but it’s more mildly flavored than many of its cabbage-family cousins and adapts easily to all sorts of food companions and flavors.

A fall and winter vegetable, kale goes well with hearty partners such as sausage, bacon, beans, sweet potatoes and potatoes, and with strong flavors such as garlic and hot pepper. I like it finely chopped in omelets, chopped into salads, and as a side dish on its own with some olive oil and garlic. Irish colcannon, the famous potato dish, is often made with kale rather than cabbage. Kale is also an excellent addition to soups. Try it in a marvelous minestrone.

To prepare kale, strip the leaves from the stems unless you’re using it in soup (the stems tend to be tough). You can freeze the stems to use in homemade stock, or just put them on the compost heat. Chop or slice the kale leaves. While kale can be used raw, its frilly edges can be a bit on the tough side, and it’s easiest to eat when cooked until wilted.

Here’s my standard recipe for kale as a side dish.

Garlicky Kale

Serves 4

  • 2 bunches kale (about 1 pound total)
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, slivered or minced
  • 1/3 cup chicken broth or water
  • Salt (preferably sea salt)
  • Hot pepper flakes (optional)

Strip the leaves from the kale. Discard the stems. Roll up the leaves and thinly slice them crosswise.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a saucepan. Add the garlic and cook just a few seconds, until fragrant. Add the kale and cook, tossing the kale to coat it with garlic oil, for about a minute, or until the kale begins to wilt. Add the broth or water, cover the pan, and cook over medium heat for another 6 to 8 minutes, or until the greens are tender. Season with salt and hot pepper flakes.

Variation: Cook 2 strips of bacon until crisp. Drain the bacon, reserving the bacon drippings, and crumble. Substitute 1 tablespoon of bacon drippings for 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and proceed with the recipe as directed. Just before serving, top the kale with the crumbled bacon bits.

Garlicky Chicken and Fresh Tomatoes

Sometimes the simplest, last-minute meals turn out better than something you’ve planned for ages. I was making a healthy dinner for my Mom and a couple of my siblings last weekend. I had chicken breasts, some cornmeal, and some fresh Roma (plum) tomatoes from my patio container garden.

Feeling in a Mediterranean mood, I first cooked up some polenta, which seemed like a nice change from pasta. Then I cooked the chicken breasts with olive oil, lots of garlic, some onion, some tomato sauce, and fresh garden tomatoes. It tasted divine and was a big hit.

Here’s a recipe, of sorts (I didn’t really measure anything). Feel free to improvise. You could add chopped fresh parsley, chopped black olives, or some chopped bell peppers to the chicken. And of course, you can save a lot of time by buying ready-made polenta, or by substituting pasta.

Chicken and Fresh Tomatoes on Polenta

Makes 4 to 6 servings

4 cups water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole-grain cornmeal (coarse or medium grind)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oilChicken:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
About 1 cup coarsely chopped onion
4 to 5 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, cut in half crosswise
About 1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning (or use some fresh herbs if you have them on hand
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
3 to 4 fresh plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
Salt (optional) and pepper to taste

To make the polenta: Bring 3 cups of the water and salt to a boil. Add the remaining cup of water (cold) to the cornmeal and stir to moisten it. (This step is optional, but helps keep the cornmeal from lumping when you add it to the boiling water. If you prefer to skip this step, bring all 4 cups of water to a boil.) Gradually stir the cornmeal into the boiling water. Continue cooking, stirring frequently, for about 30 minutes, or until the polenta is thickened but still creamy and comes cleanly away from the sides of the pan when you stir it. If the polenta begins to thicken too much, add a little more hot water. Polenta doesn’t need to be served hot, so you can set it aside while you make the chicken.

To prepare the chicken: Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and add the onion. Cook over medium-high heat until translucent, then add the garlic and cook a few seconds until fragrant. With a slotted spoon, remove the onions and garlic to a plate.

Add the chicken to the skillet and brown well on both sides. Then add the onions and garlic back to the pan, along with the tomato sauce and Italian seasoning. Cook for another 5 minutes or so, until the chicken is cooked through. Stir in the chopped fresh tomatoes and season with salt (if desired) and pepper.

Serve the chicken over scoops of the polenta.

Salade Nicoise Just Right for a Summer Day

One of my favorite summer dishes is my version of Salade Nicoise, the French salad made with tuna, eggs, tomatoes, potatoes and green beans. It doesn’t require much cooking, it’s served cold, and most importantly, everyone in our family likes it.

The French original is a composed salad, with the various components kept more separate. Mine is a bit more of a mishmash, with potato salad sitting atop greens and tuna salad atop that. I generally make my own vinaigrette, flavored with a bit of garlic and mustard, but a good bottled vinaigrette or Caesar-style dressing would work just fine.

It is a bit of work to prepare all the ingredients, but you can prepare them in advance and assemble the salad just before serving. The recipe traditionally calls for canned tuna, but for a really nice flavor, you can substitute grilled fresh tuna, cut into chunks.

Salade Nicoise
Recipe Type: Main Course, Salad
Serves: 4 to 6
  • 4 medium boiling potatoes (about 1 pound total)
  • 1/2 pound fresh green beans, trimmed
  • 2 handfuls torn lettuce or mixed greens (optional)
  • 1 large tomato, cut into 8 wedges
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs, cut in half lengthwise
  • 8 to 12 black olives (preferably Nicoise style)
  • 2 (6-ounce) cans tuna packed in water, drained
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Vinaigrette (homemade or bottled)
  • Parsley and/or capers for garnish
  1. Place the potatoes in a pan with cold water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, or just until they can be pierced easily with a fork. Rinse under cold water. When cool, peel potatoes and cut into chunks or slices. Set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, cook green beans in boiling water until tender-crisp, about 7 to 8 minutes. Rinse under cold water, drain and set aside.
  3. Just before serving, assemble salad: Make a bed of the lettuce or greens on a large platter. Top with green beans, arranged end to end around the edges of the lettuce. Arrange tomato wedges, eggs and olives decoratively around edge of platter. Toss the potatoes with vinaigrette, salt and pepper to taste. Mound in the middle of the platter. Moisten the tuna with a little of the vinaigrette and mound it on top of the potatoes. Scatter chopped parsley or capers over salad. Serve immediately.

How to Boil an Egg

In cooking, as in life, sometimes the simplest things can be the most vexing. Take the perfect boiled egg. If you have not quite mastered this skill, you know how unappealing a pitted, rubbery, sulphuric, green-yolked egg can be.

With Easter on the horizon, a lesson in how to boil eggs seems in order.

First off, the egg isn’t really boiled–or shouldn’t be. Briskly boiling water will crack the egg and toughen it. It’s more accurate to refer to it as a hard-cooked egg, but since just about everyone calls them boiled eggs, I will too.

The perfect hard boiled egg has a firm but not rubbery white, a velvety yolk, and an uncracked shell that doesn’t cling to the egg white with the stubbornness of glue when you try to peel it.

As for technique, the most foolproof I’ve found is this:

  1. Place the eggs in a heavy-bottomed pan with enough cool water to completely cover them.
  2. Place on medium-high heat.
  3. As soon as the water comes to a boil, turn off the heat.
  4. Cover the pan and let the eggs stand for 15 minutes. Subtract 5 minutes if you like your yolks softer. Add 1 to 2 minutes if you like the yolks harder or if you’re cooking jumbo eggs.
  5. Drain the eggs and rinse under cold water. (I fill the cooking pan with cold water and ice to immediately cool down the eggs.)

Starting the eggs in cold water and heating them gradually makes the egg shells less likely to crack. Turning off the heat allows them to cook without overcooking. And putting them under cold water stops the cooking and makes the shells easier to remove.

It’s important to pay attention so you know when the water begins to boil. When you hear the eggs begin to rock in the pan, it’s time to turn off the heat.

If you plan to dye the eggs for Easter, be sure to add vinegar to the dye-water mixture (most dye packets will instruct you to do this). The acid helps dissolve the eggshell’s natural waxy coating so the dye can permeate the shell.

Have a bunch of Easter eggs to use up? Try using them in my recipe for a rich, buttery cookie.

Note: Eggs that are too fresh can be hard to peel after cooking. If you’ve just bought eggs from the store, it’s best to wait at least three or four days before boiling them.

The Joys of Cherry Season

“Ah!” I shrieked. My husband stomped on the brakes, wondering if we were about to hit something.

“Look!” I said. “The pie cherries are in!”

We were in Michigan, dropping our daughter off for camp, and were passing a roadside farm stand. There it was: “Pie Cherries, 99 cents a pound.” I was lucky; the season was running a bit earlier than usual.

The Michigan sour cherry season is brief, only a couple of weeks in July. Most of the sour cherries are sold to food processors to be canned, frozen and turned into ready-made baked goods. Those that are sold fresh are highly perishable. Because they’re meant to be cooked, pie cherries are softer than the standard sweet cherries like Bing, and deteriorate rapidly. You have to buy them, pit them, and use them within about 24 hours.

Toss in the facts that so few people make fruit pies from scratch these days and that pitting cherries by hand is tedious work, and it’s no surprise that fresh pie cherries are getting increasingly harder to find.

This year, they were well worth seeking out—the pie cherries I bought were outstanding, bursting with flavor. I ate plenty of them as is, and put the rest into my famous cherry pie, an eagerly awaited annual ritual in our family.

You can make this pie with frozen, thawed or canned cherries (unsweetened, not cherry pie filling), but fresh cherries are the best.

Rather make a cobbler? Check out my fresh cherry cobbler recipe.

Fresh Cherry Pie

Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into bits
1/2 cup chilled vegetable shortening, cut into bits
4 to 5 tablespoons ice water

5 cups pitted fresh sour (pie) cherries
2 1/2 tablespoons quick-cooking (fine-grained) tapioca, or cornstarch
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons Kirsch (cherry brandy) and/or 1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Make the crust: Whisk together the flour and salt. Cut in the butter and shortening until well-blended; mixture should be coarse and mealy. Stir in enough water so that dough just comes together in a ball.

Press dough into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Divide dough into 2 parts, one slightly larger than the other. Roll out the larger portion on a lightly floured board or pastry cloth to a circle about 11 inches in diameter.

Drape dough over rolling pin and ease it into a 9-inch pie pan. Press the dough gently into the bottom of the pan and trim the edges. Refrigerate while you prepare the filling.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

To make the filling: Combine cherries and their juice (if using canned or frozen, thawed cherries, use 3/4 cup of the juice) with tapioca or cornstarch, sugar, and Kirsch and/or almond extract. Pour the cherries into the prepared pie shell.

Roll out the remaining pastry to 1/8-inch thickness. With a biscuit or cookie cutter or a knife, cut into rounds, strips, or other shapes (stars are nice). Arrange the cutouts in overlapping circles atop the cherry filling, or create a lattice crust with strips.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 35 to 45 minutes, or until the crust is browned and the filling is bubbly.

Serve slightly warm, with vanilla ice cream.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Cobb Salad: A Meal in a Salad Bowl

Much to my delight, I realized today that I have the makings of a Cobb Salad on hand. This hearty mix of lettuce, eggs, bacon, avocados, tomatoes and blue cheese is my favorite salad meal. It seems to have fallen out of favor during the 1990s low-fat craze, but recently I’ve noticed it on more restaurant menus, sometimes generically labeled as “chopped salad.”

Cobb salad is named for Bob Cobb, who was owner of Hollywood’s legendary Brown Derby Restaurant in the 1930s. Legend has it that he invented the salad one night in 1937 out of leftovers he rummaged from the kitchen. Or maybe he invented it in 1929. Or maybe his chef really invented it. Whatever the case, it quickly caught on.

Some restaurants serve Cobb Salad with blue cheese or ranch dressing, but I consider that overkill. The blue cheese should be lightly crumbled into the salad, which is dressed with a vinaigrette. Cobb Salad does require that you plan ahead; the bacon, eggs and chicken need to be cooked and cooled before you toss the salad together.

Whisk together your own vinaigrette out of white wine vinegar, olive oil and a bit of dry mustard, or use your favorite store-bought vinaigrette.

Serve this with a little Italian or French bread and some iced tea and you’ve got a simple, satisfying dinner.

Cobb Salad

Makes 2 servings

2 strips crisp-cooked bacon
2 hard-cooked (boiled) eggs
1 medium avocado
1 medium tomato
1/2 medium head iceberg lettuce
1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/2 cup chopped celery or 1/4 cup chopped green onions (optional)
1 cup diced chicken or turkey breast (boneless and skinless), optional
Vinaigrette (homemade or store-bought)

Crumble the bacon. Coarsely chop the eggs. Peel and pit the avocado, then coarsely chop. Chop and seed the tomato.

Tear or chop the lettuce into bite-size pieces. Divide between 2 dinner plates. Sprinkle the bacon, eggs, avocado, tomato, blue cheese,  celery and chicken over the lettuce and toss. Add vinaigrette to taste and toss again.

Serve immediately.