Posted on Thu, February 16, 2012 by Slow Food USA
11 Comments | Categories: Cooking,
Written by Tracie McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table
When I finished the undercover reporting for my first book, The American Way of Eating, a couple of years ago I found myself with an unexpected problem. The first round of reporting was done, as was my modest advance, but the writing and secondary reporting remained. I was stuck: As low as my wages had been picking garlic in California fields, stocking Walmart produce bins outside of Detroit, and portioning sides in an Applebee’s kitchen in New York, there had been, at least, wages. Now I had a few thousand dollars in savings and a year’s worth of work to do; money, and my grocery budget, was going to be tight.
What this meant was a creative reengagement with the idea of what it means to be broke in America, and what it might mean for my meals. One of the things that saved me was a childhood favorite: Hamburger Helper.
I know what you’re thinking: Hamburger Helper? A box meal? But allow me to make my case: One-dish meals have long been the go-to food for cooks working with limited time and money. Think chicken and dumplings, any kind of stew, and even America’s great casseroles. And while today we might startle in surprise at meal based on a flavor packet, the concept it represents—eat well, quickly, and affordably—is something I wholly endorse. So I posed myself challenge: Could I beat the box? Could I, as a cook of some skill if not wealth, make a quality meal as quickly, and more cheaply, than a box of Hamburger Helper?
On my first try, I did better than expected: The box meal only saved me one minute cooking time, but cost 42 percent more. I still needed to work on my gravy, but this was promising.
Not long after, I shifted the challenge to Tuna Helper, reflecting my general mistrust of industrial beef and the limitations of a grocery budget of $20. (A can of tuna is generally cheaper than a pound of ground beef.) Besides, it had been Tuna Helper—pasta in a mesh plastic bag, a silvered envelope of flavor powder and freeze-dried peas and carrots—that had been one of my first cooking expeditions as a kid.
Taking on tuna helper also better-suited my culinary and budgetary inclinations. Early on in my project, I’d spent a month staying with a friend who was mildly obsessed with making great bowls of spaghetti with garlic, butter and cracked pepper. I’d started expanding on that: Garlic and olives. Then tuna. Then lemon. Capers. Red chili flakes. Messing around with the balance between acidity and salt. It was quick, easy and, most important of all: Delicious.
At the height of my book work, I sometimes ate some iteration of this for dinner seven nights in a row. By the time the worst stint was over, and I began to do things like read for pleasure and information again, I realized that I had unwittingly placed myself in good company. In Italy, revelers whip up batches of spaghettata de mezzanota: pasta, garlic, chili, anchovies. And when I cracked open Sam Mogannam’s Eat Good Food a few months ago, page 62 had a version with tuna, strikingly close to my own. (I’ve since incorporated a couple of his tricks.)
Now, done with the book and settled back into my apartment, I keep a stash of pasta and canned fish on hand. I can keep it simple and cheap, as I did when working on the book, or dress it up with extras. Either way, whenever hunger strikes (or guests drop by), I’m ready to meet it with a swift, affordable meal for friends and family alike. Even better, I’ve got a quick test of their mettle. I drop the phrase Tuna Helper, and watch for a reaction: If they’re open to discussing what, precisely, I mean, I know we’re kindred spirits. If they squirm openly, I figure it will be a long night – and that I’ll have plenty of leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.
RECIPE: Tracie McMillan’s Tuna Helper Redux
1 lb spaghetti or any long noodle: linguine and fettucine are good alternatives
1 medium onion, diced fine
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced, to taste
¼ - ½ teaspoon red chili flakes
1 can tuna, ideally whole steaks packed in oil, but chunk light in water is fine
I didn’t have the income to splurge on sustainable seafood, but HeritageFoodsUSA does sell pole-caught tuna for as little as $5.29 a pound if you have the means to do that.
1 -2 lemons or 1-2 tsp red or white wine vinegar
Fresh ground pepper
Chopped Fresh herbs: Thyme (1/2 – 1 tsp). Parsley (2-3 Tbs.)
¼ pickled lemon, rinsed and minced
¼ - 1/3 cup olives, ideally jarred not canned, or better yet, bought in bulk, chopped fine
2-3 T capers
1-2 handfuls of arugula, coarsely chopped
Parmesan cheese, ideally in a block
Large pot to boil pasta in
Large, deep skillet
Small mug, heat safe measuring cup, or ladle – anything to scoop hot liquid with
Grater (for Parmesan)
Put a pot of water on for pasta, salting it heavily so that it tastes like seawater. Put the lid on and turn burner to high.
While water is heating up, do your prep: Mince the garlic and dice the onion. Open the tuna. Slice lemon in half. If using, chop the olives and pickled lemon. Put the heat safe bowl next to the stovetop with the pasta scoop.
Check the water. If it’s come to a rolling boil, pour in a couple tablespoons of oil and then add the pasta. Stir frequently until it softens to ensure that it stays separate.
In a large, deep skillet, heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil over medium-low heat until it shimmers. Toss in the onion, a pinch or two of salt, and sauté until it begins to soften. (If pasta water wasn’t ready before, check again now, and see above.)
Check pasta: You want to stop cooking before it reaches al dente; it should still be a little stiff., able to twist around without breaking, but with a hairline of crunch in the center. (Pull a noodle out of the water and bite into it to test.) This is usually about 2 minutes less than the package says it will take to cook the pasta.
If pasta is ready, scoop it out of the water and put it in the heat-safe bowl. If it’s still quite stiff, let it cook longer but keep an eye on it.
Once onion begins to turn translucent and soft, add garlic, red chile flakes, and (if using) thyme. Sauté for another 1-2 minutes, until garlic softens. Check pasta again, and drain as described above if it wasn’t done earlier.
Empty tuna can, water and all, into skillet, breaking it up with your spoon as you go. If using, add olives, capers and pickled lemon. If the mixture seems dry, add in a splash or two of pasta water to get it sauce-y.
Once the mixture has combined well, turn the heat up to medium, dump the bowl of pasta into the skillet and swirl it around in the sauce. Add another cup of the pasta water to the skillet, and mix the pasta in with it well. Stir constantly until the pasta becomes al dente, losing the hardness in its center, but not mushy. Most of the water should be absorbed.
Remove from heat. If using, stir in parsley or arugula. Juice half of a lemon over it (or a splash of vinegar), stir well and taste. If it’s still too salty, or you can’t taste the bite of the lemon, juice the other half into the pasta, too. (Vinegar and salt temper each other.) If it seems dry or sticky, add more pasta water, stirring in a splash at a time, until it reaches a consistency you like.
I’m usually a fan of family-style serving, but with this one I like to dish it into shallow pasta bowls or deep plates for guests. Then I sprinkle it with Parmesan if I have any in the house, and—if there are any left—dust it with minced herbs and a healthy grinding of black pepper.
Tracie McMillan, a freelance journalist whose work centers on food and class, is a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Her first book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, will be published by Scribner on February 21, 2012.