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)

Casting call: Try Spanish mackerel

Spanish Mackerel with Meyer Lemon Escabeche/Gretchen McKay

 

 

People can be funny when it comes to eating fish.

You want a fillet to taste vaguely of the ocean so as to distinguish it from meat or chicken. But at the same time, it shouldn’t be too . . . fishy.

No wonder, then, that mackerel doesn’t much figure in when people are figuring out what to cook during the six-week Lenten season.

Blessed (or some may say cursed) with rich, full-bodied meat, mackerel is one of your oilier fishes. That translates into a fillet that’s more assertive tasting than Alaskan salmon or Icelandic cod. That is, if you’re eating small Atlantic (Boston) mackerel, or the giant king mackerel, which can reach 100 pounds and is such a voracious eater that the fish sometimes can be seen leaping out of the water in pursuit of prey.

Not so with the mid-sized Spanish mackerel, a species that can be found from Cape Cod to North Carolina to the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s got the same razor-sharp teeth and silvery skin as its larger brethren, along with beautiful yellow spots on its iridescent blue-green skin, but the taste is much, much milder. So much so that even those who normally only will take a chance on fish that is white, flaky and delicate-tasting might ask for seconds and maybe even thirds after they sample it for the first time.

That’s right: I liked the Spanish mackerel escabeche that Penn Avenue Fish Co. owner/chef Henry Dewey prepared for me in hopes of changing my mind about fishier-tasting fish. So much so that I made it again for my husband that same night — and had the leftovers for breakfast the next morning.

I also really enjoyed a piece of roasted Spanish mackerel dipped in ponzu sauce, and discovered I could eat a raw slice of it on top of rice as nigiri without, you know, gagging. It was surprisingly clean and pleasant-tasting for raw fish.

“I can’t believe the bad rap it gets,” says Chef Dewey, who remembers fishing for it on the Gulf of Mexico as a child. “But once people taste it, it’s like, ‘Ooooh, mackerel!'”

“It’s a solid, all-around good fish,” agrees Tim Reynolds, one of the Strip District store’s fishmongers. “Any time we get it in, all of us get really excited.”

Spanish mackerel is one of the most commonly caught species off the Southeast coast, yet it still accounts for just a small percentage of total mackerel landings in the United States. That may explain why it’s difficult to find the fish on local menus, other than as an occasional daily special, and why it’s not often included in mainstream cookbooks.

Still, Penn Avenue sells about 65 pounds of the fish each week, and the amount is slowly increasing as more people become acquainted with all it has to offer, says Chef Dewey.

One of the biggest pluses is its health benefits. High in protein and low in calories, Spanish mackerel is extremely rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to protect against heart disease and possibly stroke.

Chef Dewey says, “It’s super, super good for you” so long as you keep it to just a few servings a month.

Because of its elevated mercury level, Spanish mackerel is under a consumption advisory for pregnant women and children issued by the Environmental Defense Fund. When you do enjoy it, though, it can be with a clear conscience: Spanish mackerel gets a “best choice” recommendation on Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list because its fisheries are well managed, and the year-round catches are plentiful and healthy.

Spanish mackerel also is comparatively inexpensive — in addition to Penn Avenue Fish, where it sells for $9.99 per pound whole, it can be found locally at Giant Eagle Market District, Wholey’s in the Strip District and Whole Foods for between $5.99 and $6.99 per pound. Wherever you buy, make certain the fish is extremely fresh, as the oil that makes its off-white flesh so flavorful also makes it spoil very quickly. Improperly stored (it has to be kept cold), mackerel is susceptible to scombroid poisoning, a foodborne illness with symptoms ranging from an upset stomach, headache and diarrhea.

How to tell if a mackerel is good to go? The flesh should be shiny and firm but not spongy (it shouldn’t stay sunken when you poke it), its eyes clear and the gills a rich pink color. Also, it should smell clean and briny instead of fishy. Take a pass if it’s beat up around the edges: that means it’s been bruised on its journey from the ocean to the store.

A Spanish mackerel at Penn Avenue Fish Co. in the Strip District /Post-Gazette

Spanish mackerel average between 2 and 4 pounds, and because their silver scales are extremely tiny, they don’t have to be scaled, unless you plan to eat the skin, which you probably should leave on while cooking to help keep the fish intact. Some will cut the dark, central “blood line” at the top of the fillets before putting them into a pan (I pulled the brownish meat off with the skin after cooking it) but otherwise, it’s pretty easy to clean.

The meat is firm enough that it can be cooked in a variety of methods — grilled, fried, barbecued, broiled or roasted — and it pairs exceptionally well with Asian and Mediterranean spices, standing up to spicy curries and vinegary sauces. Remember: It’s best when cooked within a short time of being caught, so don’t let it languish in the refrigerate.

Spanish mackerel also can be eaten raw in sushi or sashimi, or marinated in lemon or lime juice with chiles and salt for ceviche. And it’s wonderful smoked, says Chef Dewey, who likes to stuff the fish with fresh herbs and roast it after drizzling it with melted butter and a dusting of paprika.

“If you try it,” he says, “you’ll come back again and again for it.”


Grilled Mackerel with horseradish, lemon and mustard

This is a good recipe for those who believe mackerel is too oily; the hot-and-sour marinade cuts through the fatty richness of the fish beautifully.

  • 2 tablespoons creamed horseradish
  • 9 ounces Greek-style yogurt
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon hot English mustard, such as Colman’s
  • Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
  • 3 sprigs of fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 4 to 6 mackerel fillets

Combine horseradish and yogurt in a bowl. Season the mixture with salt and black pepper. Mix the mustard with the lemon juice and vinegar, and stir in the lemon zest. Add this mixture to the yogurt.

Coarsely chop the parsley and stir into yogurt mixture. Taste the sauce: the mustard and horseradish make it hot (it will lose some heat when cooked), the vinegar and lemon juice make it sour, and it should also be a little salty.

Preheat broiler. Lay mackerel fillets skin-side down on a baking sheet and spread with horseradish, lemon and mustard sauce. Place fish under the broiler for 4 to 5 minutes, until sauce is caramelized on top and the fish is cooked through. Serve as a starter with a mixed leaf salad. Serves 4 to 6.

— “Fish Tales: Stories & Recipes from Sustainable Fisheries Around the World” by Bart van Olphen and Tom Kime (Kyle, $29.95)


 

Spanish Mackerel with Meyer Lemon Escabeche

PG tested

  • 1 pound boneless Spanish mackerel fillets, skin on
  • 1 tablespoon blackened seasoning, such as Paul Prudhommes’ Blackened Redfish Magic
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup julienned carrots
  • 1/2 red onion, sliced very thin
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons toasted, ground coriander seeds
  • 1 Meyer lemon, sliced thin
  • Handful fresh cilantro, chopped

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Place boneless mackerel fillets skin down on a roasting pan covered with aluminum foil. Season generously with the blackened seasoning. Place in hot oven and roast for 8 minutes, or until just barely cooked through. Make sure not to overcook.

In a medium skillet, heat olive oil. Add carrots and red onions and heat gently until veggies are soft. Remove from heat. Add apple cider vinegar and a pinch of salt and pepper. Add toasted, ground coriander seeds. Add sliced Meyer lemon with some rough chopped cilantro and toss to mix.

Place the cooked fillets in a decorative dish and pour the dressing over the top of the fish.

Refrigerate for 30 minutes or up to 3 hours, spooning the dressing over the fish occasionally. Serve cold or at room temperature with crackers or on top of cooked angel-hair pasta. Serves 4.

— Henry Dewey, chef/owner Penn Avenue Fish Co.


 

BAKED MACKEREL WITH HARISSA AND LIME

PG tested

Having spent many hours as a kid and teenager pier- and surf fishing for mackerel on the Atlantic coast of Florida, I was tickled to get my hands on a beautiful whole (already gutted) fish from Penn Avenue Fish Co. It was too big for any of my pans, so I roasted it with its tail sticking out one side and its toothy head hanging out the other. But it cooked up perfectly using this recipe, meant for smaller mackerel; it also can be used on herring and trout, though as the cookbook notes, mackerel “takes assertive flavors well.” Don’t fear cooking whole fish. To me, there’s something almost sacred, and certainly special, about experiencing food this way. And it tastes good, too.

Harissa paste is a condiment of hot peppers that you can find at specialty stores, or you can whip up your own blend; I made some with piment d’Espelett pepper, paprika, cumin, coriander and olive oil.

— Bob Batz Jr.

  • 4 large or 8 small mackerel, scaled, gutted and washed (I used my one big fish)
  • 3 to 4 teaspoons harissa paste
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 2 limes quartered
  • 2 1/2 pounds baby new potatoes, halved if large
  • Handful of fresh cilantro, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lay the mackerel in a roasting pan, then mix the harissa paste with half the oil. Drizzle this over the fish, making sure the mackerel are covered inside and out. Add the limes to the pan, then toss the potatoes with the remaining oil and add them to the pan, too.

Roast in the oven for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the potatoes and fish are cooked through. Scatter with the cilantro, and serve with a crisp salad.

— “Seafood: How to Buy, Prepare, and Cook the Best Sustainable Fish and Seafood from Around the World,” edited by C.J. Jackson (DK, 2011, $35)


 

Whole roasted Spanish mackerel with lemon and paprika

  • 2 to 4 pound Spanish mackerel, gills removed and fins clipped (tell your fish monger to prepare it to cook whole)
  • 1 bunch scallions, rinsed and trimmed
  • Handful fresh herbs (thyme, tarragon or rosemary)
  • 2 slices lemon, halved
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Paprika
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Stuff the belly cavity of the mackerel with scallions and fresh herbs. Score the sides of the fish 3 times and place a medium half-slice of lemon in each score.

Place fish on an aluminum foil-covered sheet pan. Rub the outside of the fish with extra-virgin olive oil, then sprinkle with salt, freshly ground black pepper and a generous amount of paprika. Then drizzle with melted butter. Place in oven and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through. Serve with steamed vegetables and brown rice. Serves 4.

— Henry Dewey, chef/owner, Penn Avenue Fish Co.