And Jessica Throws the Gauntlet… Iron Chef Challenge: Country Grits, Y’all

Jessica Says…

Alright, alright, it’s my turn to throw the gauntlet and for this challenge, I am doing an homage to my little sister’s new home… we are going to make some good ol’ country grits, y’all!

I figure my little sister is going to have to have a few good grits recipes in her back pocket now that she and her new husband have made Kentucky their home, so here we go!

Now a bit of honest disclosure… I have never made grits before, ever. However I found (what I think could be) an amazing recipe for Shrimp n’ Grits on the Martha Stewart website. I know what you are thinking – what could Martha-freaking-Stewart know about making grits? Well hold onto your uvula, folks because I am going to say something else that is going to rock your country socks off…

Not only am I making a Martha Stewart grits recipe, but the recipe calls for quick cooking grits. I know, it’s a sacrilege.

However, I am a northern-er so I figure why not? If a northern-er can’t make a recipe with quick cooking grits than no one can, right? I also figure that with all the yummy goodness that will go into this recipe, you will never know they are instant grits.

So here I go, off to make some grits for the first time, confident that this recipe will make me victorious over all of Grit-dom!

Yes, I totally made ‘Grit-dom’ up. Come on, work with me here.

And Cassie must say…

Instant grits?!  You don’t have to watch My Cousin Vinnie a dozen times to know that this Kentucky-girl will certainly not be headed to her local grocery to brave the walk of register shame with a box of instant grits.  While I admire my sister’s trust in Ms. Stewart, I doubt that her time in the clink was long enough to make a true hill-billy out of her, (though I enjoy the thought that she made friends).  God speed my love…. God speed.

Cheddar grits are a staple in Kentucky, and I have enthusiastically jumped on the wagon, (quite unlike the more disturbing staple of copious amounts of Mountain Dew).   I am quite surprisingly filled with Appalachian pride to prepare them.   Game on!

And Cassie Throws the Gauntlet… Head-to-Head Challenge: No-Holds-Barred Tuna Noodle Casserole

Cassie Says…

So, as the little sister, I get first pick, (it’s the law of nature- look it up), and I have selected the Tuna Noodle Casserole.  Ding! Ding! 

Now, as with any competition, you want to start strong so you are likely wondering, “why would one start so aggressively with, in all reality, the bologna of pasta dishes?”

Au contraire mon ami!  Tuna Noodle Casserole is the dish that all comfort dishes aspire to be!  It is, in its purest form, the meal that you secretly give your inner child a high-five to when it makes its presence known.  It oozes sophistication, allowing your mind to say, “I can make tuna fancy.  Watch me do my fancy dance!”

Now, I particularly love dishes that seem fancy, yet did not require a lot of pretension, so you will find that all of my recipe’s ingredients will  come out of a bag, can, or would likely be found in bulk in any store.  In essence, when the world is in chaos, predicted in 20… whatever, you could make this dish, even over the earth’s molten core.

Jessica Says… Seriously? Tuna noodle casserole? There is nothing about tuna noodle casserole that makes my inner child happy. In fact, when my my inner child hears tuna noodle casserole, it says, “Ewww, gross!” I am not looking forward to this challenge.  Sigh.
So my purpose this week to make a tuna noodle casserole dish that is upscale and truly delicious. Restaurant quality – in taste and preparation. Yes, it may be difficult, but it will be worth it if it somehow makes tuna noodle casserole palatable.
Alright, I am off to go find imported tuna packed in olive oil. Seriously, wish me luck…

WINNER: The Tuna Noodle Casserole of Gods

Hmmm… how would a winner start this post?  Oh yes: I can make tuna noodle casserole better than you, na-na-na boo-boo.

This is what I would like to refer to as the pre-devour shot, if you will; the close-up of the ooey-gooeyness that one can perhaps revel in (or for those who don’t know what “revel” means, you may roll your face in it, whatever’s easiest).

Yet even in all its deliciousness, it is the simplicity of the preparation and flavors that makes it a great dinner.  The dish nearly makes itself and is exciting for any palette.

And though this dish is simple to make, its ingredients will be highly important.  Having such basic staples within it, I find that the choice of noodle and bread crumb is what gives it a more culinary feel.

To start, you will want to gather your basic canned tuna in water (a 6-8 oz. can), and your favorite can of cream of mushroom soup, (the standard 10.75 oz.). You will also need 1/4 cup of cubed butter, 4 or 5 slices of American Cheese, and a 1/2 cup of shredded cheddar cheese.

And finally, the most important ingredients; the egg noodles and bread crumbs.  In a dish like this, the noodle choice is really important.  You will most certainly want to use a traditional german egg noodle, (about 8 oz.)- I prefer Bechtle brand, and 1/4 cup of Italian bread crumbs.  Avoid the urge to use elbow-macaroni in this dish- the egg noodles lend a lightness to it as well as a great ability to cling to the cheese with its many cork-screw curves.  They basically hold their shape far better than most noodles and if (god forbid), it is eaten without cheese or mushroom soup, it will still be a fantastic bite, even on its worst day.

Plain bread crumbs simply won’t do.  This dish’s more subtle ingredients can make it quite boring so the italian bread crumbs give it a great kick.

To prepare, you will want to preheat the oven to 350°.  Bring a large pot of water to boil and cook your noodles for 9 minutes– this will leave them delightfully al dente.

Pour the drained noodles in a casserole dish, approximately 9″ x 13″.   Evenly spread the butter cubes, tuna, and mushroom soup throughout the noodles.  Gently stir.  Note: refuse your desire to coat every noodle with soup.  With the right noodle, the occasional bite with only butter and breadcrumbs serves as a fantastic contrast.  Resist the urge to relentlessly stir- stirring neuroses has not yet been diagnosed and the condition has no pill.

Once ingredients are spread to your content, place the american cheese slices and shredded cheddar on top, then sprinkle the italian bread crumbs.  Bake for 13 minutes.  What you will have is a meal that needs no sides and will leave you delightfully full.  It’s ease alone should make it the winner (and I’m pretty sure that I secured a jewelry gift from my new husband for my next birthday).

This recipe is a slight variation from what I found on allrecipes.com, with the addition of shredded cheddar.  My most noticeable differences are in the attention to ingredients and a differing technique suggestion, (they layer, I went for the elegant dump-and-serve method).  Here is a photo of it served.  We preferred bowls with trough-like features as we enjoy the fork-or-no-fork option when necessary.

The Tuna Noodle Casserole of Mere Mortals. The Mediocre Ones.

Okay, let’s first talk about the 900 lb. gorilla in the room. Yes, I did wait almost three months to finish this challenge. I could blame it on the fact that I have been insanely busy (because I have), or that the past three months have been filled with the details and the minutia of helping my sister – and blogging companion – plan her wedding (because it was). But no, the real reason it simple. I truly do not enjoy tuna noodle casserole and could not bring myself to get excited about making it. Period.

I finally got so sick of this hanging over my head that I decided to go to Whole Foods and purchase my upscale ingredients for my upscale tuna noodle casserole. Why upscale, you ask? Because if upscale ingredients can’t make it good, it never will be.

I found a recipe that fit my specifications on Food Gal’s blog that called for Gruyère cheese, imported tuna in olive oil and a béchamel. I figured if these weren’t the staples for an upscale tuna noodle casserole, then nothing was.

So after a little prep work, I got all my ingredients together and measured. It included:

The béchamel:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup minced onion or shallot
1 small dried red chile (preferably Japanese), whole
1 small bay leaf
Kosher salt
2 1/2 cups whole milk

The casserole:
1/2 pound calamarata or elbow macaroni
2 tablespoons olive oil from tuna
Two (6-ounce) cans imported tuna packed in olive oil
4 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated (1 cup tightly packed)
3 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 1/2 cups (2 ounces) fresh bread crumbs
1 1/2 ounces Parmesan cheese, freshly grated (1/3 cup tightly packed)

I am not going to detail all the instructions because the ones on Food Gal’s site are amazingly perfect, and I wouldn’t want anyone to think I had come up with that brilliance or accuse me of plagiarism. So again, here is the link to the recipe, and below are the pictures of my tuna noodle casserole experience!

Onions, bay leaf and chilies added to the roux

This is after I added the onions, bay leaf and chilies to the roux but before the onion softened and the raw onion smells dissipated. After adding the salt, the popcorn smell then dissipated, my the roux thickened and then loosened up after 3 minutes.

The Bechamel, SimmeredAfter whisking in the milk, and continuously whisking until the mixture simmered, this is what the béchamel looked like as it was slowly simmering. It took my béchamel a full 20 minutes to lose its flour taste, rather than the 15 minutes stated in the recipe. I think ‘gently simmered’ a little too gently!

After draining my pasta, I assembled the casserole as the directions stated. Everything came together beautifully, except I forgot to retain a ladle of pasta water, which was too bad because I really could have used just a pinch of it. I combined the ingredients for the topping and got ready to put some tin foil on it and shove it in the oven!

After 30 minutes, I tore off the tin foil and set my timer for an additional 15 minutes so the top could brown. About halfway through I checked and noticed the casserole was browning unevenly, so I gave it a quick turn. Good thing I did, because it browned beautifully. Check it out!Just out of the oven

Once it stopped bubbling, I dished into bowls and forced it upon served it to my family. And the neighbors. The final verdict? Overall it was good, something you would get in an upscale restaurant. The only real criticism was from the hubs who thought it was on the dry side. But both kiddos ate it, and I even had the neighbor kids enjoying it too! So overall, I think it was a good ‘upscale’ recipe, but I remain a un-lover of tuna noodle casserole. Maybe I missed the ‘homestyle’ aspect of it that was lacking in this version. Hey, what can I say… I gave it a shot!The Finished Product

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