This is the kind of recipe that I wish I'd known in college. All it takes is a single large skillet or pot, one burner or hot plate, a bowl, and a fork. That's it. And on top of that, it turns out a dish that's not just good-given-the-constraints, but legitimately good-enough-that-I-would've-made-it-for-that-girl-I-was-trying-to-impress-in-college or even good-enough-for-a-mildly-romantic-weeknight-dinner-with-the-wife.
If you want to jump straight to the meat of it, scroll down until the pictures appear. But if you've got a bit of time, first a brief story about the first recipe I ever learned to make:
It was a Saturday afternoon, my dad was drinking some beers and watching the basketball game, and the rest of the family was out of the house. The seven-year-old me was walking up and down my dad's back as he lay on the floor—he used to pay us a dime for every ten minutes of this service—when he looked up at me and said those fateful words:
"Ken," he said, "let's make some steaks for lunch."
Sounded exciting to me.
We walked into the kitchen and poked around the fridge to discover that the only thing resembling steak was a massive frozen chunk of beef that my mom had kept in the freezer to eventually turn into a stew. My dad, who I now assume was probably one or two beers too deep, pulled out the chunk of beef, hefted it onto a cutting board and pondered it for a few moments. After some quick mental calculations, he reached into the drawer for a knife.
I instinctively took a step or two back. He placed the tip of the knife against a seam in the beef, pressed down as hard as he could, realized he wasn't getting anywhere, then stepped back again for another ponder.
"Ken," he said, "go get me the hammer."
I wasn't the kind of kid who'd blindly obey orders from an adult, but even back then I was smart enough to realize that any situation involving a knife, a hammer, a dad, and a 20 pound block of frozen beef would at the very least result in a good story, and would more likely result in an awesome story.
I ran to the hallway closet, grabbed the hammer which was bigger than my arm, and ran back to the kitchen to hand it to him. He picked up the knife in one hand and placed the tip on the beef. He raised the hammer in the other and (I could swear he cried out "by the power of Grayskull!!!" as he lifted it) came down on the heel of the knife with a mighty WHACK!
The beef remained unscathed. The knife blade, on the other hand, didn't come away so lucky. It shattered into three large pieces that flew across the kitchen, one hurtling into the sink, another clattering over the oven, and a third embedding itself in the floor near my feet.
"Ken," said my father, as he slowly lowered the knife handle and the hammer, "we're making tuna melts."
And we did. And that's where my distaste for warm canned tuna started.
This is all just a roundabout way to get to the real story here. I've been going through quite a few lifestyle changes this summer. They started when my wife Adri and I packed up all of our belongings in New York, handed them off to a shipping company, drove across the country to relocate to San Francisco, then split for the 10 week pan-Asian trek we'd been planning for the past four years. It all went better than we'd ever hoped. Even now, after the trip, I'm having a blast settling into San Francisco.
The one big problem? All—and I mean all—of my kitchen equipment is still in storage. No pots, no pans, no blenders, no graters, no vegetable peelers, not even a knife and a cutting board.
This recipe, a light and easy version of tuna noodle casserole, is one that was born of a combination of my total lack of tools and my desire to finally get over my distaste for warm canned tuna. After a few tweaks, I managed to succeed on both fronts.
Classic tuna noodle casserole is made by combining canned tuna with a can of cream of mushroom soup, some frozen peas, egg noodles, and a cracker or potato chip topping. It's heavy, heavy stuff and requires a surprisingly non-trivial amount of time. My main goal was to lighten it up.
To start, I cook the egg noodles directly in a skillet—the cheapest deep skillet I could find at the supermarket, in fact—just covered with some lightly salted water. I know—this goes against everything you've ever heard about cooking pasta, right? But never fear: pasta comes out perfectly fine when cooked in a small volume of water.
In fact, in some ways it comes out even better, providing you with some extra-starchy pasta water to bind your sauce.
While the pasta cooks, I make the base for my sauce. I tried a few different dairy bases and found that crème fraîche works the best. It's light, it's acidic, and it is very resistant to breaking, forming a smooth, creamy sauce when mixed with the hot pasta.
To get it to bind and thicken, I use a technique that I often use for making stovetop mac and cheese: by whisking an egg and a bit of cornstarch into the dairy base, you can form a sauce that thickens and clings to the noodles as it warms up. It's much easier to make than a traditional bechamel-style white sauce, and lighter in texture too.
To further lighten it up, I added a whole lot of lemon juice. Stuck without a knife, I tried stabbing my lemon with a fork to release its juice and inadvertently discovered that it's actually easier to squeeze juice out of a forked lemon than to split a lemon in half with a knife. It's the method I'll be using from now on.
Once the noodles are almost all the way cooked, I dump out the liquid, using a plate to keep the pasta in the skillet. It's impossible to drain away all the liquid without a strainer, but this is fine: By throwing the pasta and whatever starchy water remains back onto the stovetop, I can just boil it away while the pasta finishes cooking through.
When the liquid is reduced down to a few ultra-starchy tablespoons, I add my crème fraîche mixture and give it a boil, stirring until it thickens up and coats the pasta.
So how did I overcome my fear of warm canned tuna? Well the first step was easy: don't eat it with melted American cheese draped all over it. The second trick is to make sure you don't overheat it. Canned tuna is cooked already—overheating it by blasting it in a hot casserole dish until bubbly only serves to make it tougher. Instead, I fold my tuna into the skillet at the very last moment so that it heats through gently, staying tender with nice big chunks. Adding a second squeeze of lemon juice right before serving also helps things along.
The last elements are a big cup of frozen peas (it wouldn't be tuna noodle casserole without them), some fresh picked parsley leaves, and a ton of black pepper—pasta with creamy sauces just don't taste right to me without it.
With a few test runs, my wife and I ended up eating this a few different ways. Once straight out of the skillet (delicious!), once saved until the day after and broiled until crisp (also delicious, though you gotta really pound it with the broiler to make sure the top crisps before the tuna underneath overcooks), and a third time with a slightly more classic approach:
(I liked the third way best).