Comfort food #4: Tuna casserole

Comfort and sophistication are awkward friends. The truth is, the food that is more comforting to me than any other is entirely devoid of kitchen glamour. It is my mother’s tuna casserole. 

It’s an embarrassing admission. As a self-respecting cook, I normally dismiss recipes that include a can of anything. I’ve sniffed at those contributions in my Texan in-laws’ family cookbook that include a can of this and a packet of that. “That’s not a recipe,” I have mumbled, “that’s a shopping list!”

The truth is, mum’s tuna casserole includes not just one can, but two: one of John West’s Chunk Style Tuna and another of Campbell’s Cream of Chicken Soup.  I’ve thought of hiding this fact, of replacing these cans with more authentic fresh-from-the-market alternatives. I’ve thought, too, of renaming the dish — like that rustic sounding ‘fish pie’ that the Brits are so keen on. But I can’t do either. This is not fish pie. It’s mum’s tuna casserole, and I can’t mess with it. It’s comfort factor is at stake! 

The American writer Laurie Colwin understands. “When life is hard and the day has been long,” she writes, “the ideal dinner is not four perfect courses, each in a lovely pool of sauce … but rather something comforting and savoury … something that makes one feel, if even for one minute, that one is safe.”

That’s it. When I make mum’s tuna casserole, I feel safe. When I take it from the oven, bubbling at its edges and with grated cheese melting over the peaks of mashed potato that form the casserole’s lid, I feel mum’s presence. And when I sit down with a generous plate full, the distinct smell wafting from the bowl, I am warmed inside and out. 

So, with not a hint of shame (well, perhaps just a smidgen), here’s the recipe for my mother’s tuna casserole. 

Here’s what you need

  • 1  425 g tin of John West Tuna, chunk style in springwater, Certified Sustainable Seafood (MSC) of course
  • 1 420 g tin of Campbell’s Condensed Cream of Chicken Soup
  • 1 large brown onion, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
  • 1 long red chilli, de-seeded and finely diced
  • 1 yellow or red capsicum, cored and diced
  • 2 bunches of fresh asparagus, cut into 2cm pieces
  • 1 corn cob, corn kernels removed from the core
  • 1 stick of celery, finely sliced
  • 6 hard boiled eggs, peeled and sliced
  • 3 large potatoes, washed, peeled and sliced
  • 200 grams of butter
  • 1/2 a cup of cream
  • A little milk
  • 1 cup full of grated cheese — a combination of cheddar and Parmesan work well. 
  • And handful of chives, snipped into little pieces.

Here’s what you do

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 200c. 
  2. Drain the tuna and place in a large mixing bowl with the soup. Mix together and set aside. 
  3. Heat 100 grams of the butter in a medium sized fry pan until it bubbles.
  4. Add the onions, garlic and chilli and sauté until the onions are transparent.
  5. Add the capsicum, asparagus, corn kernels and celery and cook together over a medium heat until all are tender, then season with salt and pepper.
  6. Add the vegetables to the tuna mix and combine well with a wooden spoon. 
  7. Add in the sliced eggs and combine gently so as not to break up the eggs too much.
  8. Transfer the mixture to a medium sized ceramic baking dish and spread evenly.
  9. Boil the potatoes in salted water until well cooked.
  10. Drain the potatoes then add the remaining 100 grams of butter and the cream and mash together to a creamy consistency. Add a little milk if needed to bring the mixture to an easily spreadable blend.
  11. Add the mashed potatoes to the top of the tuna mixture and spread to the edges. This is no place for the perfectly smoothed look. Peaks and troughs required. 
  12. Scatter the grated cheese over the top. 
  13. Place the casserole in the oven and cook for approximately 45 minutes, until the casserole’s top is a meltingly golden colour and the subterranean deliciousness is bubbling at the edges. 

Once it’s done, place the casserole on a wooden board at your table’s centre and sprinkle with the chives. Have a bottle of Tapatío Hot Sauce (or something similar) on hand and a basket of crusty bread with butter and large glasses of water (mum didn’t do wine back then). And enjoy!

Oh, and if you are still looking down your nose at my tuna casserole, you’re uninvited. This is good food!

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