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A tale of a thousand and one Friday nights

(ran SP edition)

Fill in the blank for Lent: Tuna. Canned tuna. Tuna noodle casserole. Aaaargh!

All over the country, the cats may be licking their chops when they hear the whir of the can opener, but whole generations of humans are somewhat less enthusiastic.

True, some people yearn for the comfort food of the faithful, but for others the memories of the tuna casseroles of their ill-spent youth do not bring happy memories. Too predictable. Too mushy. Too boring.

Tuna is an oddity among fishes because, in this country, 95 percent of it finds its way into a can rather than being eaten fresh. In fact, some children probably think it is born in cans.

Then there is the old wives tale of Tuna Ptomaine. In this newlywed version of a sordid story, the bride makes a horrible tuna casserole for her husband. He takes one taste, looks up, smiles and says, "Honey, let's eat out tonight."

The clever bride freezes the ill-begotten casserole and brings it out whenever she is tired of cooking and yearning for a night out with her feet under a restaurant table.

"You need to make it only once," she says. "The smell alone inspires the invitation."

In some cases the bridegroom or bride may bring a favorite tuna casserole recipe to the marriage only to have to face the other's upturned nose.

We had a recipe like that. My favorite from that 1960s' favorite, Peg Bracken's The Hate to Cook Book, was a tuna casserole _ but no noodles _ that was made with creamed corn. My spouse hated it, and he didn't even offer to take me out to dinner. (To this day, Can Can Casserole still tastes good to me.)

Still, despite the occasional bad rap, there is nothing quite as comforting as a fish that comes already cooked, adds lots of protein, contains little fat and cholesterol and can be downright tasty. Tuna even has a leg up on canned salmon, which has those pesky little bones that have to undergo Search and Destroy.

So, in honor of a thousand Friday nights, we went fishing for tuna dishes worth touting. These are so good they will never have a chance to metamorphose into Tuna Ptomaine.

This dish is a pretty green, so don't try to pass it off as something sans spinach.

Tuna Rockefeller

1 pound fresh spinach, well-rinsed

{ pound sliced bacon

{ cup fine bread crumbs

1 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon salt

{ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Juice of 1 lemon

2 (7-ounce each) cans white tuna, drained and flaked

4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch baking dish or small casserole.

Steam the spinach until wilted, 2 minutes. (The fresh spinach at our grocery looked a little bedraggled, so we used 2 9-ounce boxes of frozen spinach, the ones with no sauce. We microwaved according to package directions.) Drain and puree in a food processor or blender. Set aside.

Fry the bacon in a large skillet until crisp or cook it in the microwave. Drain and crumble.

In a bowl, combine first eight ingredients and 2 tablespoons of the Parmesan. Mix well. Place in baking dish. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons of Parmesan. (We increased the topping to 3 tablespoons.)

Bake 20 minutes until lightly browned. Serves 6.

Note: It was the general consensus that this dish tasted salty. Next time, we will eliminate the salt. If served for a meatless Friday during Lent, one suggestion was to substitute capers for the bacon.

Tuna, Broccoli and Brie Casserole

8 ounces penne or fusilli pasta

1 large broccoli stalk, coarsely chopped

1 small onion, minced

6 ounces Brie cheese with the rind removed

1{ cups milk

{ teaspoon Dijon mustard

4 scallions, sliced

{ cup diced roasted red pepper

1 (6 {-ounce) can solid white tuna packed in water, drained and flaked

{ teaspoon salt

\ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 plum tomato, finely diced

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a medium flameproof casserole, cook the pasta according to the package directions, adding the broccoli to the water about 5 minutes before the pasta is fully cooked.

Drain well and return the pasta mixture to the casserole. While the mixture is hot, add the onion and cheese, stirring lightly to melt the cheese. Add the milk and mustard; stir to blend. Mix in the scallions, roasted pepper, tuna, salt and pepper.

Transfer to the oven and bake about 30 minutes or until the mixture is bubbly, stirring once halfway through. Stir in the tomato just before serving. Makes 3-4 servings.

Source: One Pot Sunday Suppers by Pat Dailey.

Tuna Cheese Fondue

10 slices sourdough bread, buttered crusts removed

1 (6-ounce) can albacore tuna, drained, coarsely flaked

1 cup grated Swiss cheese

4 eggs, beaten

2 cups milk

1 teaspoon salt

\ teaspoon paprika

{ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Dash cayenne pepper

Cut 8 slices of the buttered bread into {-inch cubes.

In a greased, medium casserole, alternate layers of bread cubes, cheese and albacore (3 layers of bread and cheese and 2 of albacore). Blend the eggs, milk, salt, paprika, Worcestershire and cayenne and pour carefully over the casserole.

Cut the remaining 2 slices of buttered bread into triangles and stand them around the edge of the casserole, the broad sides pushed into the fondue a little bit. Bake for 1 hour in a 350-degree oven or until well-browned and firm in the center. Cut into wedges and serve.

Note: An appetizer for a meatless Friday can be a challenge. This one is both attractive and tasty.

Lazio Gourmet Albacore Tuna

2 (6-ounce) cans albacore tuna in water, separated, undrained

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 teaspoons grated onion

1 teaspoon prepared horseradish

\ teaspoon salt

\ teaspoon liquid smoke

{ cup chopped pecans

3 tablespoons parsley

Combine albacore tuna (in its juice), cream cheese, lemon juice, onion, horseradish, salt and liquid smoke. Mix thoroughly and chill several hours. Combine pecans and parsley. Shape tuna mixture into ball. Roll in chopped nuts and parsley. Chill well; serve with assorted crackers.

Variation: Roll tuna mixture into little bite-size balls, flatten with a knife and roll in nuts and parsley. Serve on a cracker or supply some toothpicks and watch them disappear.

Can Can Casserole

2 eggs

1 small can evaporated milk

No. 2 can cream-style corn (about 20 ounces)

1 (7-ounce) can chunk tuna, broken a bit with a fork

1 green pepper, chopped

1 medium onion, grated

Beat eggs and add a can of evaporated milk, then add canned corn, tuna, green pepper and onion.

Pour it all into a buttered casserole dish and bake, uncovered, at 325 degrees for an hour.

Note: Tuna cans have been downsized to 6 ounces, which is okay for this recipe. Makes 3-servings.

This is about the easiest tuna casserole that ever happened, and it's quite good. If others disagree, it can become your standard ruse to get taken out to dinner.

Source: The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken.