..Fast to Cook, Long Keeping Ingredients—a Classic One-Man Meal:
(c) 2014, Davd
“The salmon,” goes a mid-20th Century joke, “is a fish which grows to maturity in the oceans and appears as if by magic from a can, when unexpected guests arrive for dinner.” I lived over half my lifespan along the west coast of Canada and the US in the watersheds where Pacific salmon appeared as if by magic at the mouths of rivers in the autumn, to swim upstream, spawn, and die.*
When i was a student in Seattle, canned salmon was still a fairly economical, long-keeping foodstuff. Today, there are fewer salmon and more grocery-shoppers; and you are lucky to buy canned salmon** for less than $15 per kilo; while a one dollar can of tuna, which contains 120 g of meat and 50 g of broth, works out to $8.33 per kilo. Sadly, that’s a fairly good price for any decent tasting kind of fish these days; and so, it might be wise to have a few cans of tuna, bought on those dollar sales, in the cupboard for occasions when there’s no meat in the fridge that appeals to you, and you’d like a quick, fairly good tasting meal.
Tuna and noodles is very much a bachelor food: One can of tuna has just enough meat in it to feed one man one meal, and far too little for two, even for two six year old boys. Pasta keeps several days in the ‘fridge, cooked; and is quick to cook from its dry form. The seasonings can all be kept for months. I’m going to describe it the way i cooked it this winter, in a small (7-inch top diameter, 5½-inch bottom diameter) stainless steel frying pan, to use some canned tuna that was approaching its “best before” date. (I bought it for 70-90 cents per can “in the old days” before 2012.) The pan nicely held the tuna, cooking liquid, seasonings, and pasta—one pan is both cooking utensil and “soup plate” with handle—a classic bachelor cooking-for-one situation. A man living alone can make very efficient use of such a pan, very often; in a household of two or more, it’s mainly useful for making small amounts of sauces or when only one man is at home.
I would not use a cast-iron frying pan for this job: Cast-iron frying pans are best for frying but poor for wet cooking. (Well, best for frying unless you cook over a gas flame in the French manner, which almost no one does at home in North America. If you go camping and plan to cook over a fire or a gas stove, leave the cast iron at home; stainless cooks better over flame and is also easier to clean.) The pan i used was discarded by a neighbour who has a typical Canadian electric stove; i salvaged it because i have a woodstove on which i do most of my winter cooking. If i bought one, i’d have insisted on a 6-inch bottom diameter (to fit the smaller elements of normal electric stoves), but for free—this was a good deal.
If you don’t have cooked pasta waiting in the ‘fridge, half-fill a pot of water for cooking it and start that heating, with the dry pasta standing by. Spaghetti works fine, fusilli, rotini, and linguine should also. Penne and elbows, i’d use for something else; and vermicelli is too thin, really. A wee bit of oil in the pasta cooking water helps prevent sticking. Cook enough pasta, if you haven’t any waiting in the fridge, that the next time you want pasta, you will have. (It can always become pasta and cheese, or pasta salad with mayonnaise, and before long i’ll write about an easy way to cook chicken cacciatore.)
Into the pan (or cooking pot if you’re making this up for more than just one man) goes a little stock. If you don’t keep stock in your fridge you’ll probably use the water from the canned tuna, perhaps from a jar or tin of olives, maybe even a little plain water. With the pan on the stove and a little stock in the pan, add the Seasonings: Celery [leaf or seed, or “lovage”], Sage, Oregano, Hot Paprika, Pepper, and Onion or Chive, cut fairly small. (If you don’t have hot paprika you can skip it, or add regular paprika and a wee pinch of hot red pepper or 1-2 drops of Tabasco type hot-pepper sauce.) Now turn on the heat, fairly low if it’s electric. Let the stock and seasonings simmer for 2-5 minutes, and keep the heat low so the stock doesn’t boil away (add water or more stock if it threatens to. A glass lid really helps here.)
I use “vegetable stock” made from vegetable trimmings, herb stems, and old herbs that have lost some but not all of their flavour. A packet of fish or shrimp broth powder from one of those 85g [3 oz] bags of ramen noodles will also do, if you have one you didn’t put in with the ramen; or half the brine left over from a jar or can of olives. The water from the can of tuna won’t be enough by itself (or it can be used when adding the cornstarch). Don’t use beef or chicken stock.
Now add the tuna and if you have some handy, you might want to add some pimento, a few olives [black or green], or a few capers; (don’t add more than one of them, unless you’re very familiar with using them and are confident you’ll like the combination. If you fried the onions to where they just started to brown, that will provide the oil to get the starch to thicken; if not, add a half teaspoonful of cooking oil or bacon fat.)
While the tuna is heating up to boiling, mix a forkful of cornstarch into some liquid, preferably stock (and-or the ‘water’ from the tuna can if you didn’t use it already.) When the tuna has boiled in its seasoned liquid for even a minute, add the cornstarch and stock (stir it again, with the fork rather than a spoon for best effect, before and after adding to the pan.) If using electricity, you can raise the heat setting, but not to highest.
Soon, the liquid will thicken and begin to bubble. Cut the heat back to low [or move the pan to a cooler part of the woodstove] and mix in the pasta. If it’s cold cooked pasta from the ‘fridge, then it will need a few minutes to heat, and if you use high rather than low heat the thickened sauce may stick.) If the noodles were cooked at the same time and added boiling hot, mix them in, shut off the heat, and allow to cool back to eating temperature. When the noodles are eating temperature, it’s ready.
If you don’t yet have a seasonings collection, you can make a quite decent meal of tuna and noodles using a “seafood seasoning” such as Johnny’s or Tony Chachere’s as seasonings, and the liquid from a small jar or can of olives or pimentos [maybe from bread and butter pickles] as stock. (Do not throw away such flavoured liquid unless you already have an abundance of it in the fridge or the cold cellar. I make pickled eggs using the liquid from dill pickles, a trick i learned from an old Ukrainian welder; and the leftover liquid from bread and butter pickles or green olives will also work, with a different tasting result, obviously. I doubt that dill pickle ‘broth’ would make a good stock for tuna, because it is so acid; but if you like acid sauces you could even try that.)
For a vegetable to accompany tuna and noodles, in winter, i tend to heat some frozen spinach, cook cabbage with caraway, or have cabbage heart or cole slaw. Carrot-raisin salad is also OK but i prefer a green vegetable, or maybe beets, with this ‘dish’. I’ve eaten it for breakfast with an apple, banana, orange, or even rhubarb, especially if i wanted a quick breakfast.
One pan, easily cleaned, cooks and serves the ‘main dish’; and there are several ways to accompany that main dish without having to cook anything else but the pasta. Efficient one-man meal, and tastes good enough you could eat it often if tuna were still cheap.
* Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) can spawn, return to sea, and return from sea a year or two later to spawn again. Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchys spp.) die after spawning (unless the fishermen catch them before they enter the rivers.)
** Chum or keta salmon (Oncorhynchys keta) can sometimes be bought in cans for $9 or so per kilo, but it is the least tasty of the Pacific species and was known as “dog salmon” during my youth. When other salmon species were abundant it was fed to dogs while the other species were eaten by the
humans; i count it as edible fish but would not call it “salmon” among serious cooks. Pink salmon (Oncorhynchys gorbuscha) can be had in cans for between $8 and $10 per kilo in years when the spawning runs are largest, and should be treated as similar to brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) by Easterners. I recommend canned pink salmon for cooking, though sockeye is the best canned salmon and coho and chinook, better than pink. Fresh pink salmon is good steamed, which the oilier salmon species, in my opinion, are not. Pinks were sold in Atlantic Canada in 2013 for $5 per kilo and less, whole frozen [drawn].