Everyone has that one family recipe, right? The one that means home, whether it’s a secret or everyone has their own version. The comfort food that’s always been a comfort food.
My paternal grandmother was my only grandparent who really enjoyed cooking, and the one dish I remember her making more than once is her strawberry-rhubarb pie. She didn’t have a recipe, she just made it, and it makes me happy to think that I’m like her in that respect.
My mother’s specialty–at least, my favorite–is chicken curry crepes. Oh em geez, chicken and onions and celery in a creamy curry sauce wrapped in crepes and drizzled with butter. Love love love.
But that one dish is my stepdad’s tuna casserole. At my parents’ house, it’s his and only his. My mom never makes it. And since he knows how much Ian and I love it, he makes it nearly every time we come visit. He uses Da Vinci wagon wheels, which are, I agree, the best choice. Just exactly the right number of the spokes fill up with saucy goodness. And he usually tops half with sharp cheddar and half with mozzarella. Or one of each, when enough people are eating, because leftovers are just as tasty.
The problem with wagon wheels is that we can’t always find them here. I usually use rotini or medium shells. My stepdad usually brings a couple bags of wagon wheels when they come visit, though.
I asked for his recipe a few years ago, at Ian’s behest, but it’s morphed over time into my tuna casserole.
And now, I share it with you. Just the recipe, not the casserole that’s waiting to go in the oven as we speak.
You will need:
One package of pasta
1/2 stick butter
1/4-1/3 cup flour
1 12 ounce can of evaporated milk
2-4 cans of chunk tuna in water
4-8 ounces of cheese, grated
A sprinkle of Tony Chachere’s, or just salt and pepper for you Yankees
In a large pot, put enough water to cook the pasta of your choice. While that’s heating, melt half a stick of butter in a medium to large skillet over low heat. Once it’s melted, whisk in the flour. Keep whisking, not necessarily constantly, but fairly often. You will smell it when it’s ready, an amazing nutty goodness.
Slowly pour the evaporated milk into your roux, whisking away. It will be lumpy. Keep whisking.
Carelessly drain the tuna. A little extra water will thin the sauce. Shoo the cats who think you’re treating them. Dump all that tuna on top of the sauce.
Pasta’s done, right? Carelessly drain that, too. I mean, as soon as it’s in the colander, put it back in the pot. You want a tad of pasta water in the sauce as well, so don’t shake it before re-potting. Set your noodles aside for the nonce.
Back to the sauce. Sprinkle your Tony’s on. I don’t put much in because it’s better on. As in after plating.
Here’s my secret ingredient: Parmesan. Just a little bit in the sauce adds so much. Shredded is great, but green can is good. Parmesan is my favorite cheese. A nice wedge of good Parmesan is such an amazing snack. Or meal. Don’t judge.
Gently fold the tuna and parm into the sauce. Or not so gently, but surprise big chunks of tuna are a major part of the tuna casserole experience. Once it’s mostly homogenous, pour the sauce into the pot of pasta. Again, fold gently (or not).
Lubricate a 9×13 casserole dish with nonstick spray, then spread your mixture into it in an even layer.
Now for the biggest decision of your life. What cheese with which to top? Tonight we have about three ounces of Colby Jack followed by about three ounces of a Mexican four-cheese blend. I don’t hate on pre-shredded cheese, especially now that it’s either the same price or cheaper than block. Besides, if it’s me plus a grater, there will probably be blood (I keep it out of the food). Not to mention that you’re making a casserole, that red-headed stepchild of dinners everywhere. But hey, to each his own. If you’re grating, do that first. I should have said that earlier, huh? Sorry about that evil laugh.
If you’re eating now, pop that bad boy in a 400° oven until the cheese is the color you like it. If you’re eating later, cover it with a towel and let it cool down before lidding it up with a lid, foil, whatevs, and throwing it in the fridge. When you’re ready, put the cold casserole in a cold oven, then turn it to 400° for 40-50 minutes.
One more tip: I have perfected the art of the tuna casserole smash. Once I have my plate, I squish the whole serving with my fork before liberally applying more Tony’s. It just tasteses good that way.