Thursday, July 3, 2008

Baby food

No, this is not about actual food for babies, although I've started to have fun with that now that the O-man is on solids. However, this post is about food that works for adults when there's a baby in the house. That's not to say you can't make it if there isn't a baby in your house (which is probably the case for 95% of my readers). It's just that about 2 months after the O-man was born, I realized that baby-friendly dinner is not the same as working-until-8pm friendly.

Let me explain. Now I actually want things that take an hour or more to bake in the oven or simmer on the stovetop so that we can concentrate on feeding and bathing the baby and getting him to sleep just before we eat rather than cooking something that's fast, but takes a lot of prep time at the end and/or is best eaten as soon as it's ready (eg, sitr fries). I've also learned that prepping as much as possible ahead of time when the baby is napping is key, but more on that in another post I think.

Today we're going to concentrate on things that cook slowly in the oven. Lasagna is one of my favorites of these, but again, I have planned that for another post about making over your leftovers. I'm thinking about this yummy cross between mac and cheese and tuna casserole that I made a few weeks ago.

First, a slight digression about tuna casseroles. My parents are from the Midwest. I grew up eating my Grandma's 'Friday Tuna Casserole' (she wasn't Catholic so I suspect the recipe wasn't actually hers), which included a can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup and a large quantity of crushed potato chips both inside the casserole and sprinkled on top for crunch. When I lived in the US, I am almost ashamed to say that a regular staple in our dinner rotation was a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese (you know, the one with the powdered, radioactive orange cheese) with tuna-in-a-can and a handful of frozen peas thrown in. This is inspired by that, but is slightly less processed and definitely more homemade!

The recipe is a blend of two from the Food Network, one from Ina Garten (again) and one from Dave Lieberman. Those recipes are here and here. I couldn't quite fathom the amount of butter and cheese in Ina's recipe, but I liked the idea of the tomatoes on top.

Cheesy pasta with tuna, peas and tomatoes
1/2 lb pasta (I suppose macaroni is ideal, but I only had farfalle so used that)
1 1/4 c milk (I used skim because I had it and it tasted fine, but I'm sure it would be creamier with whole milk)
2 1/2 T unsalted butter, divided
1 1/2 T flour
1 3/4 c shredded cheese (I used 1 c mature cheddar, 1/2 c mozzarella and 1/4 c Parmesan)
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
1/8 tsp red pepper flakes
Yellow mustard (or mustard powder)
1 can tuna fish, drained
1 c frozen peas
Tomatoes (I used halved cherry tomatoes but slices of big tomatoes would be fine)
1 c fresh breadcrumbs (I used wheat sandwich bread because it was all I had, but I think day-old baguette or something similar would probably be best). If you've never made homemade breadcrumbs before, it's really easy-just cut the bread into chunks and process in a food processor for about a minute. If you don't have a food processor, a blender might work.

Cook the pasta to al dente according to package directions (see TIP below). You want it to be a bit under-cooked since it will get softer in the oven.

Melt 1.5 T butter in a pot and whisk in flour. Cook for 2 minutes (stir frequently if not constantly). Add milk, whisking to prevent any lumps, and cook for 1-2 minutes until thick and smooth. Take off the heat and stir in the cheeses and pepper. Add in the red pepper flakes and a squirt of mustard.

Mix the cheese sauce with the pasta and add the tuna and peas. Put in a baking dish (I used a 10x7 inch oval gratin dish, so an 8 inch square would be similar). Top with the tomatoes (cut side up for cherry tomatoes) and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Mix the bread crumbs with 1 T melted butter and some pepper and then sprinkle these on top of the tomatoes.

Bake at 375 F (190 C) for 30-35 minutes.

NOTE: The leftovers weren't as great as I was hoping, so it's good if you can use it all up the same day. This makes 2 REALLY generous servings, but probably more like 3-4.

TIP: Always add salt to your pasta water (I don't think oil is necessary). Apparently if you have pots with stainless interiors, salt will mark and pit your pot, so you should add it just before adding the pasta. I was always under the impression that it makes sense to wait until the water's boiled to add salt since the salt will raise the boiling point of the water, and therefore make it take longer for your water to boil. However, the change is apparently insignificant, and interestingly the same volume of 20% salt water boils faster than pure water owing to heat capacity. Ah, chemistry...

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