January 15, 2014

Tuna Helper, All Grown Up

When I was a little girl, I had big dreams. One of them was to find out what the heck a tuna noodle casserole tasted like. (Yes, I was an ambitious kid.) Asian parents just don't make such a thing—or at least mine didn't. It seemed to be an ordinary, run of the mill dinner in many of the children's books I read.

Then something magical happened: I discovered Tuna Helper in the grocery store. To my amazement, it looked like a shortcut to finally tasting this exotic food for myself. I convinced my dad to buy it, and when we got home, I immediately started preparing it for dinner. Its creamy, savory sauce was unlike anything I'd ever had before. I was in love.

Not Tuna Helper.

In retrospect, perhaps my taste buds were also influenced by a shade of vanity, for it also happened to be the first meal I ever made for myself, by myself.

To my chagrin, I didn't get to eat Tuna Helper ever again after that night, because no one else in my family enjoyed eating it as much as I did.

Recently, I've been craving comfort food, cut from the same cloth as my glorious Tuna Helper dinner all those years ago. I've been trying to avoid instant foods with questionable ingredients, which meant no actual Tuna Helper. And to be honest, I have no idea if the 2014 me would still enjoy Tuna Helper as much as I did a decade ago (sorry, Ms. Crocker!). That meant I had to make a homemade version. I was a little anxious that it wouldn't come out right. I never make creamy foods at home. I never cook with milk.

But a part of me was aching to take the plunge and experiment. Roald Dahl knows what I'm talking about:
With the kitchen to himself, Lexington straight away began experimenting with dishes of his own invention. The old favourites no longer interested him. He had a violent urge to create.
Pig, Roald Dahl
I did a little research and discovered that most recipes called for a can of cream of mushroom soup. This disappointed me. I didn't want to go down that route, and luckily, the from-scratch alternative seemed easy enough: stir a couple of tablespoons of flour with milk, and then heat and stir until it gets thick.

After jazzing up the recipe with garlic, onion, a ton of frozen vegetables and some Sriracha sauce, I'm happy to report that I'll never lust after Tuna Helper again. Instead, I'll crave this homemade version. It turns out that making this convenience food from scratch is quick and easy. Making it from scratch is also more economical. This recipe makes a ton of servings...definitely enough to feed you plus a hungry roommate or boy/girlfriend—and you'll definitely have leftovers to bring for lunch the next day. No wonder all those literature-dwelling American families made it for dinner so often! We should all take a page from their book. Pun intended.



Wholesome Tuna Noodle Casserole
8 oz. elbow macaroni (or any dried pasta you prefer)
1/2 large onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
6 tbsp flour
1 cup + 2 tbsp fat-free milk
1 cup frozen mixed vegetables
2 cups frozen or fresh broccoli florets, chopped
1 tomato, roughly chopped
Sriracha, hot sauce, salt, pepper to taste

Cook macaroni to al dente and drain, reserving about a cup of the pasta water.

While the macaroni's cooking, drizzle about a tablespoon of oil in a large skillet and saute the onion and garlic over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add in the flour and milk and stir until it thickens. If it seems too thick (it probably will), add some of the pasta water to thin it out.

Add in the frozen vegetables, tomato and broccoli. Stir until the vegetables are no longer frozen (about 10-15 minutes), and the sauce looks nicely creamy. Add the cooked macaroni and more pasta water if the sauce still needs to be thinned out. Season with Sriracha, salt and pepper to taste.

Serve immediately, and enjoy!

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