McCray: Tough times call for comfort food

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03/17/2009 5:44 PM

03/17/2009 8:55 PM

Tuna casserole can't hold a candle to, say, chocolate, but does rank high on my list of comfort foods.

If I were one to sit around and think about these things — and I am — I'd say it comes in at No. 3, just behind mashed potatoes and a Hershey bar with almonds.

I chose tuna casserole for several reasons:

It's cozy and homey. There's something about cream sauce that makes me think of Mom.

I'm stressed. Who isn't? The economy ... the kids ... the job. Bring on the cream sauce.

I was under the mistaken impression my children would eat it. They love tuna, they love noodles, they love cream sauce. How could they not love tuna casserole?

Because 4- and 6-year-olds don't like combined foods, that's why. Four- and 6-year-olds often don't like foods that touch one another, or foods that are in close proximity to one an other, or foods that share the same universe.

I know this from experience, but I still wanted to try the casserole.

Shopping was easy. My grocery store had all the ingredients, including the tuna packed in olive oil. (Why is this necessary? I'm sure my mom never used this fancy stuff when she mixed up her version).

Making the dish was tedious. The recipe called for making a sherry-spiked cream sauce — from scratch. (Again, I'm sure Mom never did this). Then there were the homemade bread crumbs and the pasta. By the time the dish made it to the oven, the sink was overflowing with pots, bowls — even the blender — waiting to be washed.

When it was finally done — and I mean finally — my masterpiece looked like a run-of-the-mill casserole. There was no indication that I spent much of the evening slaving over it (other than the state of the kitchen, that is).

The taste? Pretty good, although I expected much more creamy goodness for the amount of work that went into it. It seemed a bit dry, and didn't have much of the sherry-mushroom flavor I was hoping for.

The kids? They wouldn't try it.

Note to self: Always separate food before serving.

Or skip the main dish and go directly to chocolate.

Bee staff writer Kerry McCray can be reached at 578-2358 or at

'Tuna noodle casserole conjures up all kinds of great childhood memories and aromas. My mother use to make this on a cold winter night topped with potato chips. I love this updated recipe ...'

— Ann Waldron, tester

This tuna noodle casserole is thrifty. The leftovers were very good, too.

— Jan Gibson, Modesto

There are just too many steps for what's essentially just another tuna casserole.

— Carolyn Conser, Modesto

This wasn't overly fishy, which I liked.

— Melinda Cabrera, Modesto

What a hit. It took quite a bit of preparation (and quite a few dishes), but most of the ingredients were staples that I had readily available.

— Joanne Azevedo, Ceres

I have been trying to update my recipe for a tuna noodle casserole for several years now. I think I have finally found the right one.

— Gayle Madsen, Escalon

Although I prefer to cook with fresh rather than processed ingredients, I think I'll continue to make tuna casserole recipes that call for a Campbell's condensed soup rather than having to prepare what amounted to a homemade equivalent of one by making a cream sauce from scratch.

— Marilyn Drew, Modesto

So you look in the cupboard and find you have most of the stuff except for the sherry, whole milk, tuna in oil and fresh bread crumbs (this recipe had to be from the '60s). A less experienced cook might go and buy all that stuff, not realizing that, in this century, chardonnay, nonfat milk (in most sauces), tuna in water and Progresso bread crumbs work just as well. On to the chopping, sautéing, whisking, boiling, and what do you get? A bland and boring tuna casserole that would probably have been more flavorful had I opened a couple of cans of cream of mushroom soup and quickly thrown everything else together! This is why recipes give cooking a bad rap and make novices go for takeout.

— Karin Reenstierna, Modesto

The tuna casserole was very good. The sherry gave it a very smooth taste.

— Donna Boots, Modesto

My ideal casserole should be one which is finished much more quickly. My son, a swim athlete who inhales whatever I put in front of him, didn't care for it and refused to eat it the second day.

— Suzanne Abid, Modesto

Tuna noodle casserole conjures up all kinds of great childhood memories and aromas. My mother used to make this on a cold winter night topped with potato chips. I love this updated recipe with soy sauce, lemon juice and sherry. The results are very tasty, although I prefer a little crunchier topping like potato chips, circa 1950.

— Ann Waldron, Sequim, Wash., formerly of Modesto

This is no wimpy cream-of-mushroom-soup casserole. This recipe treats mushrooms right. You sauté them in soy sauce and sherry until they are nearly caramelized and then add them to the cream sauce. If you want to taste the tuna, you'd better double the amount, for the 6 ounces called for in this recipe go nearly unnoticed, the dominant flavor being the mushrooms.

— Ralph Moore, Modesto

I like casseroles, and this one was quite unique. The tuna flavor was subtle, which I liked. Surprisingly, the crumb/cheese topping was not as cheesy as I would have liked. I found the process of making the rue and mushroom sauce a bit tedious, but the end result was good. We had leftovers for lunch and the dish held up in the fridge.

— Ann Griffith, Modesto

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