All photos: Laura Hobbs, Fayetteville Flyer
Dad used to make a lot of Tuna Helper. Like, a lot. Whenever mom was out of town for work, we would often have Tuna Helper for dinner. I liked the kind with the peas and carrots OK, but I especially liked the tuna tetrazzini, with its thin noodles and its cheesy, uh, “parmesan” flavor. Of course, this was before I thought that meals in a box were the devil’s making, and before I knew how to cook something that, well, didn’t come in a box.
Fast forward 25 years. I hadn’t eaten tuna casserole since Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and canned tuna was something that I bought at the grocery store with the intention of incorporating more lean protein into my diet, only to have it sit on my pantry shelf for the next nine months while I eat ramen instead.
A recent issue of Everyday Food was about to change that, though. In March’s Smart Savings edition, the theme is eating on the cheap while still eating well. Lots of casseroles and one pot meals fill the pages, using cheap ingredients to give you more bang for your buck – and some damn fine leftovers to boot. The one that caught my eye was an especially appealing spinach and tuna casserole, with jumbo pasta shells nestled together in a creamy sauce. Yes, please.
In this dish, flaky tuna is mixed together with chopped spinach, a few breadcrumbs and a dollop of creamy sauce before being spooned into pasta shells, topped with more sauce and breadcrumbs, and baked until it’s browned and bubbling. They key here is to make sure you squeeze the life out of the thawed spinach to ensure that your creamy shells don’t turn into a soupy green mess. Use a strainer, some cheesecloth or your vice-like grip – whatever you’ve got on hand, and whatever works for you.
This makes a lot of food for two people; it served as my lunchtime leftovers until midweek, and seemed to get better and better by the day. Another idea is to divide the shells into two smaller dishes, and bake one while freezing the other. And yes, I was the one in the office kitchen who was making the nuke-a-tron smell like a fish market. Apologies.
Don’t like canned tuna? You could certainly use another kind of fish, like flaked grilled trout, or even grilled chicken. Make the dish work for you, and you’ll be happy as a… tuna? Eh, that works. Enjoy!
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Tuna & Spinach Shells
(adapted from Everyday Food)
3 Tbs. olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1/4 c. flour
4 c. whole milk
1 English muffin
1/4 c. parmesan, grated
1/2 tsp. Italian seasoning
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 pkg. (10 oz.) frozen chopped spinach,
thawed and excess liquid squeezed out
2 (6 oz.) cans light tuna in water, drained
6 oz. (about 20) jumbo pasta shells,
cooked and drained
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 375°. In a medium pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 8 minutes. Add the flour and whisk, stirring constantly, about a minute until the flour just begins to brown. Add the milk slowly, whisking constantly, and cook until the sauce is thickened and bubbling, about 5 minutes. Season the sauce with salt and pepper, remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
In a food processor, combine the English muffin, parmesan, Italian seasoning, and red pepper flakes. Process until fine crumbs form, then season with salt and pepper. Transfer half of the crumb mixture to a large bowl, and add the spinach, tuna, and half of the sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Fill each cooked shell with 2 tablespoons of the tuna mixture, and arrange them in a 9×13 baking dish. Top the filled shells with the remaining sauce and sprinkle the remaining crumb mixture over the top. Bake until the sauce is bubbling and the breadcrumbs are golden, about 30 minutes.
* If the above slideshow doesn’t load, you can view all the photos from this recipe on Flickr.
Laura is a regular contributor for the Fayetteville Flyer. She was born and raised in Fayetteville, but has recently moved to Boulder, Colorado. She is a self-proclaimed foodie and avid cook. For more from Laura, check out her food blog, Prana & Pie.