The Cans in My Closet

My family takes throwing food away seriously. When I was five, my father’s mother passed away, his father having died several years earlier. While cleaning out her house, one more modern that that of their childhood, my father and his sisters were confronted with an unexpected pantry when someone opened the dishwasher. Grandma Dot kicked the dishes old school, as do I, so her unsolicited dishwasher became a convenient dry goods storage unit. Along with the usual family heirlooms, we inherited a big box of canned food. My father drove the motley bounty all the way from Falmouth, Maine, back to RI, and the cans found a new home in our corner lazy Susan cupboard. But everyone knows what happens when you bus in the kids, and the clique never mingled, the other cans giving the “northern island” a wide berth. Decades later, I’d be foraging in the cabinets for a snack and pull out a can of tuna with charmingly quaint packaging. “Yeah, that’s pretty old. Why don’t you put that back,” my mother would quickly offer, and a few more years would slip by. Once out of the cupboard, it’s easier to throw it out than put it back, so I always found my this particular neurosis of my otherwise practical parents amusing. The Bates Motel for tinned goods. But these days, when $10’s are the new $20’s, I’m gaining an appreciation for the continual state of panicked frugality of my grandparents’ generation. Right now I’m all over hot, comforting meals that can stretch to include a few lunches and leftover nights, and in that vein, I offer my family recipe for…

Old School Tuna Casserole

Get out your apron and heels. And the paprika.

1 pkg egg noodles
4 cans solid white tuna, drained and broken up
1 1/2 can cream of mushroom soup
1 small container sour cream
1 large cylinder French’s crispy onions
3 tbsp finely chopped black olives
2 tsp dried cilantro
salt and pepper
paprika

Set the oven to 350. Cook the egg noodles according the package instructions. Shoot for al dente, as the noodles will cook a little more in the oven later. In the meantime, use a fork to combine the tuna, soup, sour cream, 1/3 of the onions, olives and cilantro, flaking the tuna as you mix. Salt and pepper as you like. Now and then I’ll add 1 tsp of crushed red pepper. The resulting mixture will be a grim sight – don’t worry about it. Once the pasta is done, drained and rinsed, return it to the pot and stir in the disconcerting tuna mixture. Stir gently so as not to mash the noodles, but take the time to get an even distribution. It’s already looking a lot better, right?

Put the entire mass into a 9×13 glass casserole dish and sprinkle the rest of the crispy onions evenly on top. Paprika the crap out of it and bake it at 350 for about half an hour, or until a fork inserted into the middle and held for 10 seconds comes out hot.

I don’t let peas anywhere near my dishes, but for the many of  you who are so inclined, you can prepare a package of frozen peas and mix them in before baking. To feed a large group on a tight budget, you can use chunk light tuna instead of solid and make an 8-person meal for under $15. I have a tiny family, so I usually separate it into two batches using square cake pans before baking, and freeze half for use within next month.

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