Thank heavens I was drunk.

Chicken and Rice Beware

I was overjoyed to find that BJ’s stocks wine glasses this morning, saving me a separate trip with the Sisters Sledge. Two trips, actually, since the smallest quantity available was twelve, and half the box is now in my basement. It’s difficult to judge an item’s size in a warehouse club, and upon unpacking the first half dozen, I realized that I could fit both my fists in the cup area of a glass. Perhaps it should have been obvious that the majority of people who pick up twelve wine glasses with their pallet of paper towel would prefer them to hold as much as possible, but these come close to novelty scale. I’m not much of wine drinker myself, yet the chalices are so impressive that I’ve got one filled up right now with Riesling. It doesn’t seem that the meniscus has budged over the last half hour, though the children have become much more bearable and the overhead lights are really beginning to grate.

Braced with enough of a buzz to risk a failure in the kitchen, this evening I took on a recipe for Chicken and Rice Casserole that I’ve been considering for the past year, but that’s always struck me as a little too weird. Mrs. Peña becomes dangerously fearless, however, with a little of the grape coursing through her veins, so even as the aroma of garlic wafting from the oven carries a little too much char for my taste, I’m not worried. An entire large pizza is rather appetizing right now, anyway.

Oh, Simply Recipes. Although I knew this day would come, the smack across my face still brings tears to my eyes. Why would you subject rice to such treatment? If aiming for a consistency between aspic and tapioca, one usually turns to cornstarch instead. And why would you do that to garlic? Eating this is like kissing a man who just ate scampi and chased it with a shot of foot. And where, for the love of all things holy, is that cloying sweetness coming from? I re-sampled my sour cream to verify that it hadn’t gone off, but now I wish I just assumed it had, since the alternative is that this tastes good to someone.

My grandmother had a way of writing someone off that sent shivers down the spines of those who witnessed her ruling. While I’m not adequately furious with Simply Recipes to “leave them to God,” another culinary fiasco on their heads and I might have to become a Catholic.

The harsh light of this particular morning finds me doubtful that this casserole merits such scathing criticism as above. More likely, my gripe tank couldn’t withstand the pressure of one more minor disappointment and, as it burst, spewed forth the rantings of a tipsy perfectionist. Further, Mr. P enjoyed two servings as I withheld my commentary, having eaten earlier, and his verdict was an enthusiastic “delicious!” Keep in mind, though, that I married a smart man.

Chard, where have you been all my life?

Vegetarian But In No Way Vegan Lasagna


By some miracle all of my children are asleep at the same time in the middle of the day, and I can’t say I have high hopes for the completion of this particular nugget. Getting straight to the point, I am adding a new standard to not only my vegetarian repertoire, but to the Team-Peña fortnightly rotation as well. I’ve more than established my Seinfeld/Newman relationship with the vegetable, but every so often a new one gets past the gatekeeper, and as luck would have it, I like Swiss Chard. I’m not leaving Mr. P for it, but I like it. I made this for dinner last week when the fearless culinary maven Jess came over for some hair-of-the-Christmas, and I would have made it every night since but for the delightful and ridiculous amount of cheese involved. I was obviously in holiday shock when I undertook the recipe, serving something for the first time to a guest, experimenting with new leaves, and purchasing organic, whole-wheat lasagna noodles. I seemed to have temporarily misplaced my character.

Incorporating two of my favorite things (mushrooms sauteed with nutmeg, and ricotta), it was the sort of delicious that causes you to repress grunts, snorts and moans, and make at least a halfhearted attempt to refrain from wolfing. I found the recipe on Epicurious, and will link instead of typing it out, as I’d suggest only a few alterations. I wound up spooning out about a half cup of onions once they were in the pan with the chard, as the proportion just seemed off, and I’m glad I did. I was out of Extra Virgin, so I used regular and it was just fine, and I have no idea if my bay leaf was Turkish. Finally, I’d recommend any kind of whole-wheat noodles (who really cares if their pasta’s organic?). That last part was not an invitations for smart remarks.

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

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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