My mom, just like my grandmother before her, is a wonderful cook.
Despite working full time, she regularly and singlehandedly managed to get a delicious square meal to the dinner table. (This doesn't seem exceptional until you try to do it yourself.) And even as teenagers, when everyone's schedules got busier, we almost always ate together — even if it was after 9 o'clock, or if it was just boxed Kraft mac and cheese.
Boxed mac and cheese wasn't the norm. But — like most ridiculous things kids like — it was what most excited me and my brothers. Our mom's most frequent and beloved iteration involved dumping a can of tuna and a handful of frozen peas into the finished product. I am not kidding when I say that somehow those two small additions made the mac transcendent.
As a recipe, it was bomb-proof, effortless, crowd-pleasing and relatively healthy. It was also something even a kid couldn't mess up. I made it for my younger siblings several times while on babysitting duty.
On Thursday I worked from home while it snowed for nearly 12 hours. There's nothing like watching five inches of snow coat your yard in early March to make you crave comfort food. (Or drive you to drink. Or a combination of the two.) Luckily, I had just stocked up on wine and five kinds of cheese. I also had half-finished packages of whole wheat pasta and frozen vegetables taking up space in the cupboard and freezer.
And a can of tuna.
The wheels turned. My stomach growled. A fierce nostalgia bubbled up from somewhere. Et voilà! This recipe was born.
Why you should make this
This isn't as onerous as some mac and cheese recipes I've tried. The ingredients list is fairly sparse. You could make it even more so by omitting the tuna or the veggies, or by sticking with only one or two kinds of cheese (side note: If you're the kind of person who would do that, we can no longer be friends). As long as you're making some kind of cheese sauce and adding some kind of noodle, you're golden.
The extras really transform it, though. And they're easy extras — from your freezer and from a can. So I suggest you don't skimp.
Speaking of not skimping: Don't under-do it on the cheese. This recipe calls for 12-ish ounces. When in doubt, go with the -ish. No one will be upset.
tuna mac and cheese
based on tasting table. inspired by mom.
- 3/4 pound pasta (I used a combo of whole wheat penne and rotini — because those were the scraps left in my cupboard — and they worked beautifully. But almost any kind would do. Just avoid stringy long noodles like spaghetti or fettuccine.)
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter (plus some more for buttering your casserole dish, should you used one. I prefer to do this in a cast iron skillet so it can go from stovetop to oven.)
- 1/4 cup flour
- 3 cups whole milk, warmed
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 12-ish ounces cheese, shredded (For this, I used 6-ish ounces cheddar, 2-ish ounces gruyere, 2-ish ounces gorgonzola and 2-ish ounces smoked gouda. I would gladly do it with just gruyere and cheddar, or just cheddar, or whatever — because I love cheese and can’t get enough. You do you. Just make sure you don’t skimp, because not putting enough cheese in mac and cheese is a terrible sin that you do NOT want on your conscience.)
- 1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 1-2 tablespoons dijon mustard, depending on your taste
- 1 5-ounce can of tuna (I like Tonno packed in olive oil.)
- 1/2 bag of frozen mixed vegetables (I used corn, green beans, peas and carrots, because it was what I had on hand, and the sweetness of the corn and carrots ended up being a wonderful complement. But you could easily do this with just peas, just corn, just carrots… or even frozen kale or spinach. Or no veggies at all. You do you.)
- 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
- Heat the oven to 350° degrees. Boil a large pot of salted water while you’re shredding your cheese (trust me, you’ll be glad that you did this first, because everything else comes together quickly once the dreadful shredding is done).
- Once the water comes to a boil, cook the pasta until it’s very al dente. For the last two minutes of cooking, toss in the frozen vegetables to thaw. Drain pasta and veggies into a colander and set aside.
- Meanwhile, make some béchamel. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan (preferably that large cast iron skillet, which you can transfer right to the oven!) over medium heat. Stir in the flour, whisking constantly, until golden and no longer raw smelling, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the warm milk, a little at a time. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan with the whisk constantly, until it thickens enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, 5 to 10 minutes. Season with a couple pinches of salt and a few pinches of freshly ground black pepper.
- Remove the béchamel from the heat and stir in the mustard, the red pepper flakes and three-fourths of the shredded cheese. Stir until combined; all the cheese will have melted at this point, and you should resist the urge to eat the cheese sauce straight from the pan with a spoon (goodnight and good luck). Flake the tuna into the dish with a fork. Fold in the cooked pasta and veggies. Stir to combine evenly. Taste and season again as needed.
- If you’re not using an oven-safe pan, now’s the time to transfer your masterpiece to the buttered casserole dish. Top the tuna/noodle/veggie mixture with the remaining cheese and breadcrumbs. Bake until browned and bubbly, about 30-35 minutes.
- Serve with a sprinkling of red pepper flakes.