31 May 2010

A timeless casserole

We all have those go-to meals. They're easy, typically cobbled together with a few pantry staples and an overwhelming number of these are one-dish meals.

Luckily, one of the reasons most of these meals get stuck in our weeknight rotation is that the family loves them. And the cook, well, she can't complain when a meal hits that many high notes.

My standby meal, always waiting in the wings, is tuna casserole. I realized recently that despite mentioning it several times before, I've never shared the recipe. That's in part because I was never given a recipe. I grew up watching my mom make it. She would use a red, heavy-bottomed sauce pan for the sauce, that, when spotted on the stove top, almost always meant tuna casserole.

It's actually a fairly simple dish. It's a cheese sauce mixed with elbow noodles and canned tuna. It was always served with Saltine crackers at my mom's table, and leftovers never sat in the fridge too long. I remember one time sitting at the table in my Great Grandma Peach's kitchen next to my Grandma Pat. My mom and her grandmother were near the sink, and they were talking food. My Grandma Pat mentioned that she didn't care for tuna casserole but she made it regularly for her kids growing up. She also said she topped it crushed potato chips. The potato chips bit started the wheels turning in my head, but frankly, before that moment, it never occurred to me that the dish was something my mother took from her own.

Like my mom must have done with me, I often keep Jasper entertained while I cook by letting him pull up a stool and watch. When I make tuna casserole, he seems to be in heaven. He gobbles up the cheese nearly as quick as I grate it, and he loves the little bowl of flour I give him while I make my roux. And, like I remember doing as a kid, he wants to try the dried, uncooked pasta.

I don't vary from this recipe. In fact I got a little over-passionate about it while making it at a restaurant when someone suggested I add mushrooms or peas. I won't, however, think ill of you if you want to tweak the recipe. After all, my mom never put potato chips on hers.

Tuna Casserole
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 and 3/4 cup milk, slightly warm
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, plus more for topping
1 can tuna, drained and flaked
Short-cut dried pasta, cooked to package directions*
Salt and pepper to taste

4 Saltine crackers, crushed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in a sauce pan over medium heat. Once the butter melts and bubbles begin to disapate, add flour slowly while stirring. Continue to stir while butter and flour mixture cooks, until the mixture looses the raw flour smell, about 3 to 4 minutes. Slowly add the warm milk while whisking continuously. Once milk has been added, whisk every once in a while while it comes to a slow bubble. Begin to reduce heat, continuing to stir. The sauce should begin to thicken. Add shredded cheese and stir until melted. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add tuna and stir to combine. Pour sauce over pasta and stir to coat pasta with sauce. Pour pasta into casserole dish. Top with more shredded cheese and then sprinkle the crushed crackers on top. Bake until cheese topping is slightly browned. Can be prepared ahead, cooled and refrigerated and baked later. Allow for longer baking time.

* I typically use the small elbow pasta, but any pasta that would cup sauce would work. Elbow, shells, and penne probably work best. I typically use a round casserole that is about 9 inches in diameter and four inches deep. A 9 by 13-inch also works well. I fill the casserole with the dried pasta until the casserole is about 1/2 to 3/4 full to know how much pasta you'll need. I find that works better than measuring cups since different pasta shapes fill the casserole differently.

24 May 2010

Cute and easy cupcakes

Despite the fact that I am beginning to think I have given you the impression lately that the only tool in my kitchen is a muffin tin, I pulled it out again.

This time, however, I used it for cupcakes. It was really an excuse to make a good cream cheese frosting. I tried to make cream cheese frosting in a rush a few weeks ago and didn't let the cream cheese sit out long enough to come completely to room temperature. What I ended up with was frosting that looked like it was made with cottage cheese instead of cream cheese.

This time, I also found myself in a hurry, so, I confess, my shortcut was a boxed cake mix. But I'm forgiving myself because this post isn't about some delicious must-have cake recipe. It's just about dressing up something simple and fun with a couple of items in your pantry. A lemon, cream cheese and strawberry jam made this a memorable dessert.

I started with a white cake mix, added about one tablespoon of lemon juice and the zest from three small lemons. Once cupcakes were completely cooled, I loaded a piping bag with jam and inserted it into the center of each cupcake, giving each one a little shot of strawberry jam hidden inside.

The frosting is simple enough, as long as your cream cheese isn't cold. I let mine set out on the kitchen counter for about two hours. If you research cream cheese frosting recipes, you'll see that some call for added butter and others don't. I'll say this, the added butter makes them richer and can also give your frosting a bit better structure, I think, but for this busy day, I opted for cream cheese alone.

Once I dumped two boxes of cream cheese into the mixer with the whisk attached, I added about a third of a cup of strawberry jam and a third of a cup of powdered sugar. Mix on medium until the icing comes together smoothly. Taste and add more powdered sugar if needed. If you plan to pipe the icing, you may want to remove any large fruit chunks, so they clog the tip. Much like a butter frosting, this icing gets a little tough to work with when it gets too warm. If it's too loose, just pop in the fridge long enough to firm up, so it's easier to work with.

Frost them and top them with a strawberry slice and mint leaf. The best part of this little cupcake is that it would be heavenly with just about any cake and you could use any fruit jam. Think about raspberry chocolate, blackberry chiffon or orange vanilla. Pull out the muffin tin and get piping.

18 May 2010

Play first, cook later

A couple of weeks ago I checked out a cookbook from the library with a focus on family-friendly meals. I could quickly tell it wasn't the kind of book I'd like to have on my shelves, but I thought I'd at least give it a chance.

After reading through several recipes, I made one, a beans and rice dish. It was OK I suppose, but let's just say I haven't been craving it since. I feel like I could use a few more quick, family-friendly meals in my repertoire, but it seems sometimes those are the hardest to come up with. I think back to the dishes my mom made: goulash, French bread pizza, burritos and tuna casserole. I do make some of these for my family, too, but it always seems like the old standards are just that -- old.

We recently wrapped up a week of Seth being home with us on vacation. We had so much fun, enjoying meals together that we seldom get the chance to. And on a warm Sunday afternoon we took a walk and decided to make it just a bit longer with a stop at the park to slide and swing and climb. I felt a little urge to hurry home and get dinner on the table as the sun dropped to the treeline, but instead, we stayed and played.

When we got home, I pulled a pasta dish together without too much trouble. It was satisfying, good and everyone had seconds. There is nothing fancy, new or amazing about this dish, but, it's not a bad one to have in your stock of recipes. It might just give you the chance to enjoy the park a bit longer.

Pasta with Sausage and Red Sauce

1 28 oz can whole tomatoes, buzzed in the food processor or blender*
1 small onion, diced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 pound of Italian sausage

1 pound of short-cut pasta (penne, rotini, farfalle, shells)

Parmesan cheese, grated
Pinch of red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the pasta according to package directions until al dente. Drain and toss with olive oil; set aside. Brown sausage in heavy-bottomed pot. Once cooked through, remove sausage from pot, reserving grease. Add onions and cook until soft and slightly browned. Add garlic and cook about 1 minute longer. Add tomatoes and stir, making sure to scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Bring sauce to a low bubble and add sausage. Once combined, add pasta to pot and stir to combine. Add a handful of cheese and stir. Serve warm with additional cheese on top.

* You can use chopped tomatoes or sauce, but I generally like to start with whole tomatoes because that's where the best fruit is. Processors use the best tomatoes to can whole and then use lesser-quality for chopped and sauce products.

13 May 2010

Browning bananas

I'm running late, you may have noticed. I usually try to post on a Monday or a Tuesday, but this week I was having fun with my family at the Oregon Coast. We played in the sand, listened to sea lions bark, watched boats churn by and ate some delicious seafood.

Now, it's back to reality of sorts, and it seems I'm up to my eyeballs in laundry, work, cleaning and hosting the neighborhood gals for a night of fun.

All of that, and the quickly browning bananas in my fruit bowl are demanding I do something other than throw them straight into the compost bin. So, despite the fact that I gave you a muffin recipe last week, I'm offering up another. This is actually a post from about a year ago. But I swear it's my favorite muffin, and I just couldn't stand it if you didn't have the recipe.

Go, hurry, before the bananas turn to complete mush.

Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins
Adapted from a Boston Cooking School Cookbook muffin recipe

2 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup melted butter
1/2 cup chocolate chips
1 medium over-ripe banana, mashed well

Combine first four ingredients in a bowl. In another bowl, mix eggs, yogurt, butter and banana. Combine wet and dry ingredients and mix just until moistened. Fold in chocolate chips. Spoon batter into prepared muffin tins (greased or lined with paper cups). Bake at 400 degrees for approximately 15 minutes or until a toothpick insert comes out clean and tops are slightly golden. Let cool in tins for 10 minutes and then remove to continue cooling.

03 May 2010

Muffin Morning

Pretty much any recipe that calls for rolled oats soaked in buttermilk overnight is destined to be a keeper. Something magical happens when those thick, chewy oats spend a chilly evening soaking up tangy, creamy buttermilk. Instead of each oat working on its own, when the mixture is folded together with other ingredients like eggs, sugar and flour, the oats become the dense, moist structure of something delicious.

This recipe is from Marion Cunningham's "The Breakfast Book." This is one for your shelves, my friends. And what a great gift. Brides, moms and bakers don't need oodles of books about sauces and prime rib. They need a book full of recipes for great baked goodies. And Cunningham is one of the best.

So, pick up some buttermilk and rolled oats, and get to the kitchen. There's also something exciting about waking up in the morning and knowing your buttermilk-soaked oats are waiting for you. If muffins aren't your thing, I'm still singing the praises of this pancake recipe. And if you've got buttermilk left over, add some mayo, a splash of vinegar, herbs and seasoning and call it Ranch Dressing.

Seriously, nothing but goodness comes from this sour stuff.

Irish Oatmeal Muffins
From "The Breakfast Book" by Marion Cunningham

2 cups buttermilk
1 cup rolled oats
2 eggs
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 2/3 cups whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Combine the buttermilk and the oats at least 6 hours (preferably overnight) before mixing and baking the muffins. Stir well, cover and let rest in the refrigerator.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease the muffin tins.
Put the eggs in a mixing bowl and beat just until yolk and white are blended. Add the sugar and beat until smooth and well blended. Add the buttermilk -oatmeal mixture. Add the flour, baking soda, salt and oil. Beat until the batter is well mixed.
Fill the muffin tins three-quarters full of batter. They usually bake about 20 minutes, but start testing for doneness after 15 minutes. Either remove the muffins from the tins and cool on racks or serve hot from the pan. Makes two dozen muffins.

Note: I added frozen blueberries straight from the freezer.