Gretchen McKay

Tuna noodle casserole: Yuck!

Tuna noodle casserole is a classic Lenten dish./Gretchen McKay

Everybody remembers a food from childhood that made them shudder, if not gag outright when Mom brought it to the table.

For me, it’s tuna casserole.

My three older brothers all loved the dish, but me — I found the creamy, fishy-smelling mixture of egg noodles tossed with condensed soup, frozen peas and canned tuna fish a complete aberration. A witches’ brew, if there ever were one.

The mere sight of my mother’s terra cotta casserole dish filled me with dread, because she only made two things in the giant pot: tuna casserole and beef stew, which contained something hated almost as much as those fishy noodles — cooked carrots. But I digress.

While I’ll gladly eat canned tuna in cold salads, I draw the line at cooked “chicken of the sea” dishes. There’s something about warm tuna fish that just feels wrong on the tongue. Plus it stinks. What’s appetizing about seafood is the fresh, clean smell of the sea. But canned tuna? It reminds me of cat food.

You can throw “noodle” in the title like many do to try to make the dish sound more appealing, but there’s no fooling us tuna-casserole haters. Even when the curly, cooked pasta gets nice and crispy on top, a bite is still going to include fishy-tasting fish. And that’s just … wrong.

I take great comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my aversion.

Last week, when a sample from a local catering kitchen ended up in the food room with a heart-shaped chocolate cake, I sent a newsroom-wide email to see who wanted some. Guess which freebie disappeared first.

Only two co-workers took the tuna bait. One because she hadn’t remembered to pack lunch and thought it would be a “nostalgic trip back to elementary school,” and the other because of tradition.

“Obviously you didn’t grow up in a conservative Catholic family,” said PG librarian Steve Karlinchak, who ate tons of the stuff while in college at Duquesne University and was quite disappointed to have shown up at my desk a few minutes too late. (He’s right; I’m Lutheran.)

When pressed, Steve admitted his mother never made or ate it. “I guess it’s one of those things you have to learn to eat,” he said.

My point exactly. Any dish you have to “learn” to stomach probably isn’t worth putting in your belly.

I get why so many mothers, including my own, worshipped at the altar of canned tuna in the 1960s and ’70s. Fresh fish wasn’t so widely available when I was growing up, and it certainly wasn’t economical for large families. I have six brothers and sisters, and feeding all those hungry kids three times a day required budgeting.

“It was an economical thing to make, and went a long way,” my mom tells me, when I call to ask her why she served it so often.

Not to mention easy for a working mother of seven whose husband traveled for business. “Back then I cooked as easy as possible,” she says. “I needed dishes I could make ahead.”

Her’s was a pretty simple preparation — a couple cans of tuna mixed with Campbell’s cream of chicken soup, wide egg noodles and peas. Some milk to make it extra creamy but no canned chicken broth, because that didn’t exist at our local A&P.

With Lent now underway, everyone’s talking fish. So I decided that perhaps I should give tuna noodle casserole — on the menu at several church fish fries — another chance. Now that I’m a grownup, maybe, just maybe, I might find I actually like the dish. Especially if I found a really great recipe. I mean, I no longer hate cooked carrots.

“Not Your Mom’s Tuna Casserole” from the new “Mr. and Mrs. Sunday’s Dinner” cookbook by Lorraine Wallace seemed just the ticket. Picture perfect, the panko-cheddar crust sounded like a delicious update, as did the veggies cooked in a homemade cream sauce. My husband, who loves the dish, couldn’t wait for me to become a convert.

Only I didn’t. While my parents and son’s girlfriend thought the casserole was wonderful, it failed to work its magic on me. One whiff, and I was transported back to childhood. I didn’t need more than a spoonful to confirm the obvious.

In the past 28 years of mothering, I’ve always told my kids there was one dish I’d never, ever make, no matter how poor or pressed for time or hungry we might be: tuna casserole. Last week’s experiment confirmed that.

But I might try the recipe with shredded rotisserie chicken.

Not Your Mom’s Tuna Casserole

An updated version of the American classic, Tuna Noodle Casserole./Gretchen McKay

PG tested

Nonstick cooking spray

12-ounce bag egg noodles

16-ounce can oil-packed tuna (I used tuna packed in water)

10-ounce package frozen peas, thawed and drained

3 cups shredded cheddar cheese, divided

1 tablespoon butter

1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)

1 celery stalk, finely diced (about 1/2 cup)

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

8 ounces baby bella mushrooms, quartered

1½ tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1½ cups chicken broth, homemade or canned

2 cups whole milk

1½ cups panko bread crumbs

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and position oven rack in the middle position.

Coat a 13-by-9-inch casserole dish with cooking spray. (I used 2 smaller casserole dishes.)

Cook the noodles in salted water until al dente according to package directions. Drain and rinse the noodles in cold water to stop them from cooking. Once cooled, pour the noodles into a large bowl and add tuna, peas and 2 cups of the cheese. Toss to combine.

In large skillet over medium-high heat, melt butter. Add onion and celery and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, add thyme and continue to cook until onion and celery are translucent, about 2 more minutes. Add mushrooms, reduce heat to medium and cook vegetables until tender and the mushrooms’ juices have evaporated, about 5 minutes longer. Add Worcestershire sauce and stir it in, then sprinkle the flour over the entire skillet. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until flour is incorporated into vegetables, with no lumps. Add broth and stir to scrape up any brown bits. Slowly pour in the milk, stirring constantly to combine. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the mixture has thickened and is reduced by 1/2 cup, about 8 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Pour the vegetable sauce over the tuna-noodle mixture in the bowl and mix to combine. Immediately pour into the prepared casserole dish(es).

In bowl, toss panko with remaining cheese. Stir in olive oil. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the casserole. Bake, uncovered, until the casserole is bubbly and top is golden, 35 to 40 minutes. Serve piping hot.

Serves 8.

— “Mr. and Mrs. Sunday’s Dinner: More than 100 Delicious, Homemade Recipes to Bring Your Family Together” by Lorraine Wallace (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Jan. 2015, $24.99)

Pittsburgh’s pie guy

Pittsburgh’s pie guy, Frank Ruzomberka, has been making pies at Grant Bar for more than 20 years. Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette

Frank Ruzomberka of Shaler has been in the family-restaurant business going on six decades, and he’s always been a terrific chef. (He was American Culinary Federation’s Chef of the Year, Pittsburgh chapter, in 1979.) Yet some would argue he didn’t realize his true calling in life until he had a good 30 years of cooking under his belt.

Twenty or so years ago, he started making pie from scratch for Grant Bar, the tavern on Grant Street in Millvale that his parents, Matthew and Maria Ruzomberka, started in 1933. Talk about a great idea catching on.

The old-school neighborhood restaurant has always served pie and other desserts, of course. But in the early days, many of the fillings were made with prepared mixes. A dedicated pastry chef would have been an unaffordable luxury, and as a busy executive chef responsible for overseeing an entire menu and staff, “I just didn’t have the time,” says Mr. Ruzomberka, who was certified by the  American Academy of Chefs in 1981 and is largely self-taught.

While taking some courses at Community College of Allegheny County in his 50s, he changed his mind. Among all the “young kids” in a class that involved pie-making, “I was the best,” he says. So an idea sprang forth. Why not put his skill to use for customers?

Within three months, he’d perfected his recipes for a crispy lard/butter crust and a variety of fillings, and over the years, some have become legendary: apple, peach, pumpkin, banana, egg custard, chocolate and banana cream, among others.

If Pittsburgh had an official Pie Guy, it’d be Mr. Ruzomberka, who at age 81 still makes upwards of a dozen pies a day by hand in the kitchen in which he started his culinary education at age 18. He’s particularly proud of his best-selling coconut cream. Piled high with whipped topping and toasted coconut, it weighs in at a whopping 4½ pounds — but still tastes light as a feather.

“I like to make things that people want and like,” he says.

In Pittsburgh when it comes to dessert, that just happens to mean pie. And not just on Pi Day, which this year falls on Sat., March 14. (And what better way to commemorate the never-ending number 3.14159… than with a slice of your favorite?)

On a busy day, Mr. Ruzomberka will sell 24 slices of coconut cream pie alone; none are more than 24 hours old.

What makes them so delicious, he says, is the time and care he takes crafting them. He spends more than four hours a day on his creations, and only uses the freshest ingredients. If peaches aren’t in season, for example, don’t expect to see peach pie on the menu.

To say he has pie-making down to a science takes some of the magic out of it. It’s really more of an art, an expression of love. “I put my heart into every pie.”

His still-nimble fingers belie the arthritis and other health issues that have come with age. (He’s had three heart attacks, along with open-heart surgery.) It takes him less than a minute to transfer a disk of pastry dough from between two pieces of waxed paper into a metal pan, trim the excess, then pat and crimp it into a perfectly fluted crust. After pricking the dough with a fork, and before adding the filling, he swirls egg white on the unbaked crust with his fingers to prevent it from getting soggy.

The swirling pattern in these crusts for cream pies comes from using fingers to paint the dough with egg white before baking them. Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette

“You can patch it up if you need to,” he says while he works, though it’s tough to imagine him making any mistakes: With thousands of pies to his credit, he has it down pat.

The empty pie shells are so perfect, in fact, that “everyone thinks I buy them this way,” he says with a chuckle.

In the past, he did everything himself. Now, longtime chef Joe Roethlein mixes and rolls out dough the night before so it’s ready to go when Mr. Ruzomberka arrives at around 7 a.m., six days a week. Make that seven, if there’s an event on Sunday.

All the while, he’s constantly in motion. While the milk is simmering to 180 degrees over a double boiler, for instance, he’s separating eggs into a bowl, whisking in sugar, melting chocolate and dissolving Knox gelatin in water to use as a thickener. Then it’s stir, stir, stir after the custard is cooked and strained and cooling on an ice bath.

A day when apple pie is on the menu? He can peel and slice 10 Golden Delicious for a pie, then assemble it in layers with cinnamon-sugar and a crumble topping, in four minutes flat.

“I could do it with my eyes closed, in my sleep,” he says.

Not that he would, because he’s too much of a perfectionist.

“Everything has to be to my standards,” he says.

It’s a work ethic that his parents’ nurtured early in their seven children. At age 6, he was cleaning spittoons and shining brass rails in the restaurant.

His creations are not for those who count calories. The crust is made using a 4-to-1 ratio of lard to butter, and each cream pie includes six egg yolks, ¾ cup sugar and 3 cups of milk (boiled precisely to 180 degrees). And don’t forget about that tall whipped topping.

With his 82nd birthday coming in May, no one could complain if the longtime chef decided to retire so he could spend more time perfecting his golf game. But in his mind, old age alone is not a recipe for retiring.

“I feel like I’m 60. I can’t wait to get here. I just love my work,” he says with a grin.

“When I can’t put the pies in the oven without spilling a drop — that’s when I’ll stop.”

2015’s new kid on the block: Cauliflower

Cauliflower Parmesan/Gretchen McKay

Trends are a peculiar thing, especially when you live in a city that doesn’t exactly shape the zeitgeist. (Sorry, Pittsburgh, but you know it’s true.) Somebody somewhere decides something is the Next Big Thing, and even though you might have previously been totally clueless, suddenly you’ve also got to have it, do it, see it.

Call it the lemming effect.

It’s especially weird when it comes to food. Each new year, the foodie powers-that-be come up with a list of hot culinary treats all the cool kids have discovered. Last year, for example, kale ruled supreme. No matter that the cruciferous vegetable (in my and many others’ opinion) doesn’t taste all that great — in 2014, you couldn’t escape it.  Kale salad. Kale chips. Even kale smoothies, chocolate chip cookies and ice cream. Even McDonald’s has jumped on board: Earlier this month, the fast-food giant announced plans to add kale as an ingredient in a to-be-named product at some restaurants later this year.

Cool cats, though, are fickle.

Cauliflower has stolen the spotlight from kale as the hot new food of 2015.

If you’re thinking, “God, no! Not that brain-like cabbage my Nana used to stink up the house with!” you might be in for a surprise. Turns out that like last year’s leafy cousin, cauliflower is incredibly versatile.

No longer relegated raw to the relish tray, the creamy-white veggie — part of the Brassica oleraceafamily — can be grated into a dough for pizza (you bind it with cheese and egg), be mashed like potatoes and be diced and fried with onion as hash. I’ve also seen recipes for cauliflower mac ’n’ cheese, cauliflower fritters and — maybe my fave — cauliflower buffalo “chicken” sandwiches.

It’s also a heck of a lot prettier than kale. Thought to date back to the 6th Century B.C., cauliflower now comes in colors other than white, such as purple, orange and green.  What also makes it worth your consideration: It’s chock full of vitamins and minerals, making it a nutritional rockstar.

Low in both fat and carbs (one cup has just 27 calories), cauliflower is high in dietary fiber, folate, water and vitamin C. It’s also a good source of folate and choline, a B vitamin known for its role in brain development.

Depending on the season and vendor, cauliflower sells for anywhere from $2.99 a head to as much as $7. But even at the higher price, it’s cheaper than a pound of quality ground beef, and can stretch just as far in a recipe, as demonstrated in the incredibly tasty Cauliflower Parmesan that follows.

Cauliflower Parmesan

PG tested

Even if cauliflower wasn’t 2015’s “it” vegetable, I’d want to make this recipe. It’s comfort food at its best. 

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

3 cups panko or plain unseasoned bread crumbs

Kosher salt, as needed

Black pepper, as needed

1 medium head cauliflower, trimmed and cut into 2-inch florets

Olive oil, for frying

5 cups Simple Tomato Sauce (recipe follows)

1 cup finely grated parmesan, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano

1/2 pound fresh mozzarella, torn into bite-size pieces

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place flour, eggs and panko into 3 wide, shallow bowls. Season each generously with salt and pepper. Dip a cauliflower piece first in flour, then eggs, then coat with panko. Repeat with remaining cauliflower.

Fill a large skillet with 1/2-inch oil. Place over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, fry cauliflower in batches, turning halfway through, until golden brown. Transfer fried cauliflower pieces to a paper towel-lined plate.

Spoon a thin layer of sauce over the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Sprinkle ⅓ of the parmesan over sauce. Scatter half cauliflower mixture over the parmesan and top with half the mozzarella pieces. Top with half the remaining sauce, sprinkle with another third of the parmesan and repeat layering, ending with a final layer of sauce and parmesan.

Transfer pan to oven and bake until cheese is golden and casserole is bubbling, about 40 minutes. Let cool a few minutes before serving.

Serves 6.

— Melissa Clark, New York Times

Simple Tomato Sauce

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1/4 teaspoon red chile flakes (optional)

2 28-ounce cans whole or diced plum tomatoes

2 sprigs basil or 1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

In a large, straight-sided skillet over medium heat, warm the oil. Add garlic and cook until just lightly golden. Add chile flakes if desired and cook 30 seconds.

Stir in tomatoes and juices, basil or bay leaf and salt and pepper.

Bring sauce to a simmer and cook until sauce is thick and tomatoes have mostly fallen apart, about 30 to 40 minutes. Adjust heat as needed to keep at a steady simmer. If using whole plum tomatoes, mash them up with the back of a wooden spoon or a potato masher to help them break down. Remove sauce from heat and discard basil or bay leaf.

Kate Middleton’s Pasta Alfredo

PG tested

Don’t eat meat or dairy? This  pasta dish was surprisingly yummy.  And absent the heavy cream and butter used in a traditional alfredo sauce, it won’t weigh you down. The original recipe called for a vegan “parmesan” topping, but I used the real thing.

12 ounces fresh cauliflower florets (not frozen)

5 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole

1 onion, sliced

1/4 cup olive oil

1½ teaspoons sea salt, divided

1 pound brown rice penne or fusilli

2 cups almond milk

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Freshly ground black pepper

Chopped fresh Italian parsley

Parmesan cheese for garnish

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Spread cauliflower, garlic and onion on a large rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with oil. Season with 1 teaspoon of the salt, then roast for about 30 minutes, or until veggies are fork tender, turning frequently with a spatula. Add more oil as needed.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook according to package direction. Drain and return to pot.

Transfer roasted vegetables to blender and add almond milk, lemon juice and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Blend until very smooth. Adjust seasoning to taste, remove from blender and toss with hot pasta. Season with pepper and top with parsley and parmesan. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 to 6.

— Adapted from “Chloe’s Vegan Italian Kitchen” by Chloe Coscarelli (Atria, 2014, $19.99)

Cauliflower and Turnip Soup

PG tested

So easy, and so delicious. And surprisingly silky for a soup that doesn’t include milk or cream.

8 tablespoons butter

1 medium onion, roughly chopped

1 shallot, roughly chopped

2 cloves garlic, halved

1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste

1 medium head cauliflower, washed, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces

2 to 3 medium purple-topped turnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1 bay leaf

6 to 8 cups chicken stock (homemade or boxed), divided

Freshly ground black pepper

Whole nutmeg for grating

In large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat, melt butter until foamy. Add onion, shallot and garlic; season with salt. Cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add cauliflower, turnips, thyme, bay leaf and 6 cups chicken stock, and stir to combine.

Bring to a simmer and cook until cauliflower and turnips are tender, about 20 minutes. Taste for seasonings and adjust if necessary. Remove bay leaf and using an immersion blender, blend to a smooth consistency. (You also can work in small batches with a countertop blender.) If the soup is too thick, add some of the remaining stock. Taste again for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

Finish with black pepper and a pinch of grated nutmeg when serving.

Serves 12.

— “Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons” by Steven Satterfield (Harper Collins; March 3, 2015; $45)

Roasted Beer and Lime Cauliflower Tacos with Cilantro Coleslaw

PG tested

Holy heck were these good!  I simmered the cauliflower in Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, but any beer would work. The slaw would be great as a side on its own, or as a topping for any sandwich. No leftovers on this one.

1/2 head of green cabbage (about 1/2 pound)

1 small carrot

2 tablespoons lime juice

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup chopped cilantro

For the tacos:

1 head cauliflower (about 1 pound)

3/4 cup beer

1/4 cup vegetable broth

1 tablespoon lime juice

1½ teaspoons tamari or soy sauce

1½ tablespoons chipotle hot sauce

1 to 2 garlic cloves, sliced

1½ teaspoons chili powder

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

Pinch of salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 yellow onion, chopped

6 corn tortillas

1 avocado, sliced

Tomato salsa, for serving

Make the slaw: Cut the cabbage into the thinnest strips you can and make sure those pieces are no longer than 2 inches. This is a great time to get good with your knife if you are looking for a silver … lining in all that chopping. Chop the carrot into thin matchsticks of the same length. Got that … down now, right? In a small bowl, mix together the lime juice, vinegar, oil, and salt. Add the dressing right before you are going to eat and toss that … well. Fold in the cilantro just before serving.

Make the tacos: Crank your oven to 400 degrees. Chop the cauliflower into small florets no bigger than a quarter. In a saucepan over medium heat, warm the beer, broth, lime juice, tamari, hot sauce, and garlic. Add the cauliflower and simmer for about 90 seconds. Drain.

In a large bowl. toss the spices, salt, and olive oil together. Add the cauliflower and onion and stir ’til those … are coated. Dump it on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until browned, stirring halfway, about 20 minutes.

To assemble the tacos, warm the tortillas in the oven or microwave for a hot minute and then pile them high with the cauliflower filling, slices of avocado, some of the slaw and top with plenty of salsa.

— edited from the funnily profane “Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook” (Rodale, 2014, $24.99) 

Cauliflower Crust Pizza

Cauliflower Crust Pizza/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

This gluten-free pizza is easy as pie, and just as tasty (though my crust didn’t get as crisp as I would have liked in the middle, even when baked on a pizza stone). My son and his girlfriend had to guess at the ingredients — a clever way to sneak in some nutritional goodies without them knowing it. 

2½ cups cauliflower, grated (about 1/2 a large head)

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1¼ cups shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese, divided

2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Nonstick spray

1/4 cup tomato sauce

1 cup grape tomatoes, sliced in half

2 cloves garlic, sliced

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Fresh basil leaves, optional

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper, and preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Grate the cauliflower using a box grater until you have 2 cups of cauliflower crumbles. Place in a large bowl and microwave for 7 to 8 minutes or until soft. Remove from the microwave and let cool.

Mix in the egg, 1 cup mozzarella, parmesan cheese and salt and pepper. Once combined, pat into a 10-inch round on the prepared pizza pan. Spray lightly with nonstick spray and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until golden.

Top the pizza with the sauce, 1/4 cup mozzarella, grape tomatoes, garlic and red pepper flakes. Bake in the oven until melted and bubbly, another 10 minutes. Top with basil before serving.

Makes 1 pizza.