As we grow up and begin to form ideas about who we are as individuals, many of those ideas are initially presented to us by our immediate family members. A big part of our lives and immediate culture are the foods we share with one another around the family dinner table.
Although I grew-up in a single-parent home, I had the pleasure of having an extended family who only lived a few hundred yards away. I can still remember pedaling my rainbow colored bike through the woods to my grandparents’ house while balancing the two-speaker, silver “ghetto blaster” on my handle bars. At times I had the Annie soundtrack blasting away, other times you might hear a Strawberry Shortcake book on tape, or possibly even the musical ravings of Ms. Tina Turner herself. Regardless, I was probably singing at the top of my lungs to the plants in the garden as I biked through the area.
Thinking back on my childhood and contemplating the lives of those I have had the pleasure of rubbing shoulders with over the years, I can’t help but wonder what exactly comfort food means to each of us. Of course, there is the quintessential comfort food that most people probably think of when the phrase is uttered (macaroni and cheese, grandma’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes, etc.). It makes me wonder what comes to mind for the people I’ve met from other parts of the world over the years. Did the foreign exchange student from Ecuador miss her grandmother’s famous patacones? Or what about the lawyer that I worked with from Nigeria? Does she miss the rice water drink that her aunt used to make them as an after dinner treat? Are these the comfort foods of their cultures?
As I further reflected upon the idea of comfort foods, I came to realize that they are not simply something that gives a hug to our taste buds. Comfort foods are something that we hunger for on an emotional level. Somehow they manage to give us peace of mind when the world has crashed at our feet, somehow they manage to make us feel better about whatever has us in a tizzy that day, but most importantly they provide us with a connection to all that has ever been wonderful in our lives. Comfort foods bring us back to a time that we felt safe, a time where we could tell that everything was just as it should be, a time that requires no questioning, a time that lacks the insanity that sometimes jumps-up in front of us. Comfort food has the ability to clarify the craziness, to help us find direction, and push us towards our passions. Or is that just me? Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.
Regardless, I wanted to take a minute to share with you a recipe from my childhood that you’ve probably never heard of, let alone laid eyes on. It might even frighten you. Okay…it probably won’t frighten you, but it might sound a little strange. Close your eyes and… okay, keep them open (otherwise you won’t be able to continue reading this) and take a moment to let these words settle in your mind: Tuna Muffins. I know. It sounds strange, but they are oooooohhhhh so good! This is one of the comfort foods of my childhood. My grandmother found the recipe in a magazine years ago (like in the 1950s). She made it hers and we have been eating them fairly regularly ever since. In fact, I have to share the original recipe with you! But don’t worry, I’ll include “our” version as well.
The greatest thing that my grandmother ever did to this recipe was to leave the olives in the can at the store. The second greatest thing? Trade the butter sauce in for creamed peas and mashed potatoes. Like many comfort foods, this dish is not pretty on the plate, but it is tasty in the mouth. Be sure to ladle the peas over the muffin and your mashed potatoes. You’ll be glad you did. So what other changes have we made? To keep with the “healthy” aspect of comfort foods, we’ve nearly doubled the cheese (although that is totally at your discretion). I also like to add a few shakes of Mrs. Dash or Spike to the mix. I’m sure you already have a favorite mashed potato recipe (whether you add garlic or onion or even make it ahead with sour cream), so I won’t bother with giving you ours. Although I will give you the creamed pea recipe and let you know how we altered it more recently as well.
Just to give you an idea of what you can expect to see as you’re working along. Here’s what the mixture should look like when you’re ready to put it into the muffin tin. Note that you can use an 8×8″ pan or even a loaf pan rather than the traditional muffin tin, but you will need to increase the cooking time to about 30-35 minutes or so. I’ve also used the mini-muffin tins (remember to reduce the cooking time to about 8-12 minutes) when creating more of an appetizer for a larger group of people (that was a great potluck we had when I was living in Houston, Texas). At this point, it merely looks like your average rice and cheese casserole dish, but trust me: there is something special about it.
It really isn’t that difficult to put together the creamed peas. Keep in mind that they should be the consistency of a gravy. Remember that they will also thicken as they cool, so if they’re just a little on the thin side they will turn out okay. Trust me.
Creamed Pea Ingredients:
- 1 regular can of peas
- 1 small can of Peas (optional)
- Milk (you’re going to have to “eye” how much of this to use)
- 2 T Flour
- 2 T of Butter or Oil (note that the you have to be more careful with the butter as it burns more easily)
- Pepper to taste
Once you’ve got your tuna muffins in the oven. the first thing that you need to do is begin making a roux in a sauce pan. Add the two tablespoons of flour and two tablespoons of oil (remember, you can use butter if you prefer) to your sauce pan. It should be on a low heat. Combine these ingredients until they are smooth. Now, add the juice from the can of peas. This will ensure that the “cream” portion of your peas has better flavor. If you are so inclined, you can mush up a small can of peas (in a blender, with a mortar & pestle, or by hand using a fork) and add that in to give the “cream” portion additional flavor and more green color. This is how Nigel has made this recipe his, but I still like it the “old fashioned” way. Once that is well mixed, see what the consistency is. This is when you should add your milk. Remember that you don’t want to make the mixture too thin. Add the peas and keep it stirring. It should thicken as it cooks (and will definitely thicken as it cools). If you feel it is too thin, you can always make a slurry of cornstarch and water to add into the mix to help thicken it up (although be sure your slurry is smooth, otherwise it will make your “gravy” lumpy). Add black pepper to taste (preferably freshly ground). I will warn you, we probably use 10 grinds or so to make it a nice peppery taste. If you know me, you’d find that extremely surprising as I don’t really like a lot of pepper in anything else (but that’s the way grandma always made it).
It’s pretty easy to get everything done about the same time with this recipe. Remember, you can always turn the oven off and let the top brown a little while your potatoes are finishing on the stove if you need. Plus, if you’re really a fan of cheese, then you can sprinkle a bit on top and let that create a lovely brown crust. Add a side salad and you can easily feed a small army. So next time you sit-down to dinner with your family and feel you need a little comfort food, try the Tuna Muffins and think of my family. You can thank me later.
Last Minute Tips for Bringing Down the Cost:
- Don’t be afraid to go generic or buy the store brand. We were surprised to discover that the Great Value brand of cheese at Walmart is far better tasting than either Kraft or Sargento. Who knew? The flavors are much more intense.
- Shred your own cheese. You’ll be surprised at how much farther the 8 oz. brick will go over the 8 oz. bag.
- Shop at your local farmer’s market or seasonal produce market. I discovered that a 10 pound bag of potatoes ranged from $1.49 to $1.89 at the Orchard Market only minutes from my house rather than $2-$5 for a 10 pound bag at our regional and national chains in the area.
- Buy your rice in bulk. It keeps and it’s cheap.
- Buy your tuna on sale. If you normally only eat the Solid White Albacore, then save that for your sandwiches. You can use chunk white or even chunk light in recipes like this.