It must be pretty obvious at this point that I enjoy tuna. As inelegant and plain as canned tuna is, I love it. A lot. It’s a very comforting food for me, and I think that’s so because I ate it a lot growing up. We didn’t have meat for dinner every night, and some nights canned tuna somehow made it onto the dinner table. Usually, my mom incorporated this in her tuna-noodle casserole. I know, I know: every mom has some version of this, but my mom’s was really, really good. It was warm, creamy in the inside, crunchy on top, and pungently flavored. Flakes of tuna here, bit of green olive there, gooey cheese oozing around each floppy egg noodle – and we’re not talking wholesome cheddar here, but that phony-baloney, plastic-banana, good-time rockin’ roller fake cheese slices we all secretly loved as kids.
That casserole, examined ingredient-by-ingredient, is actually a bit disgusting and not exactly salubrious (mayonnaise … Kraft “cheese” slices … cream of mushroom soup … jarred green olives … egg noodles … and so on), but once it came out of the oven – preceeded by a hypnotic aroma leading us like Pavlovian dogs to the kitchen – it somehow melted into a fantastically delicious conconction I never thought could be replicated.
Well, as it turns out, it can’t. (Bet you didn’t think I was going to say that!) It appears you can only make indulgently unhealthy yet tasty casseroles one way, and there are no healthy alternatives. However, I did discover you can imitate those flavors and tweak them a bit to fool your mouth into thinking it’s tasting something better. Actually, I didn’t start out making this recipe with the goal of making mini, healthy versions of that casserole, but in the end I suppose I sort of did. I was really just using up some extra egg whites (yolks used the day before for key lime pie filling hidden inside graham cupcakes with whipped cream “frosting”, yum!), hot antipasto from a Spanish-themed dinner party, and non-salad-worthy spinach – oh, and I wanted a quick dinner with leftovers for the next two days at work. Solved!
Inspiration was from Orangette’s bouchons au thon and Suzanne Sommers’ breakfast egg cupcakes. This is a super easy thing to make during the week, and the flavors meld together nicely. Even the timables held their shape; I could have safely added more spinach without causing the whole house of cards to crumble upon de-panning. There are obvious ingredient substitutions you can make, too: add in extra veggies, use other veggies, use crème fraîche instead of the mayo if you can find it (I didn’t have any on hand), squirt in some tomato paste, use canned salmon or tuna packed in oil – you get the idea. For a side, I tossed together a quick fennel and cabbage slaw. I adore the anisette flavor of fennel, and the fennel seeds in the dressing add a nice punch to this ordinarily pedestrian compote. The white balsamic vinegar is a good choice because it’s milder than the typical red variety; if you can’t find this, use apple cider or champagne vinegar.
Tuna and spinach timbales
- 1 5-oz can tuna, chunk white or chunk light, packed in water
- 1/2 cup fresh baby spinach, shredded
- 2 scallions, finely sliced
- 2 Tbsp marinated hot peppers and olives, very finely diced
- 1/3 cup crème fraîche or mayonnaise
- 5 egg whites or 3 whole eggs
Mix all ingredients together and spoon into six greased muffin cups. Bake at 325°F for 25-30 minutes.
- 1/2 bulb fennel, thinly sliced
- 2 cups cabbage (bagged coleslaw mix is great)
- 1 Tbsp walnut oil
- 1/2 tsp white balsamic vinegar
- 1 Tbsp mayonnaise
- juice of 1/4 lemon
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 tsp or so fennel seeds, toasted if you like
Toss sliced fennel and cabbage together in a bowl. Mix remaining ingredients in a small jar for the dressing and shake well, making sure the mayonnaise is homogenized into the other liquids. Pour over the veggie mixture and toss well. Let sit for at least an hour (on the counter is fine if it’s short-term) so the veggies can soften and the flavors can develop. Serve at room temperature.