Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What's in a name? Part II

As I was saying, every family is somewhat at the mercy of whoever does the cooking for them. Growing up, I was vicariously subjected to the likes and dislikes of my Mom, my brother and my Father. Whatever they didn't like, especially Mom or Dad, we probably wouldn't see much of. Whatever they all liked could be counted upon to reappear with regularity. I had my own limited input, having potentially eliminated succotash from our table at least, and so it goes from generation to generation.When it finally became my turn at the kitchen counter, predictably I faced my own trials. Starting with the "too much salt and sugar in commercial baby food" scare of the 70's, once aware of the chemical soup contained in most prepared foods, I began a label reading quest for safe and healthy foods. Eschewing any ingredient I could not pronounce, on behalf of my then young children I pretty much eliminated most products considered "convenient" from my pantry and refrigerator.

Between only four people, two of us enjoyed casseroles, two of us, not so much. One of us was of the opinion no foods should mix or mingle until well after having been devoured singly, each food item taking its turn on the palate separately, no juices touching, please. There were ongoing issues of color, texture and smell. There were firm pronouncements "I don't like that." offered without further explanation to give some hint as to what went awry.

With the exception of three dishes I (infrequently) prepared deploying "cream of" cans of soup, when I came home from the office I faced making something completely from scratch every night. I either accommodated the tastes of my family or faced turning dinnertime into a reproduction of my childhood battlefield, something I deeply desired to avoid seeing as we had so little face to face time to begin with.

All along the way I chose not to push any particular dish on any particular diner once a preference to avoid was established. Whenever I did have advance notice one or more would be out of the dinnertime mix for any reason, I seized that opportunity to prepare some dish the missing members didn't like the rest of us enjoyed.

As time went by, this "while you were out" pattern evolved into ChefSon and I enjoying an occasional casserole together. Specifically, Tuna Casserole. Tuna Casserole became a shared comfort food my son and I bonded over while Hub and LawSchoolGirl were gratefully self excluded.

So, when I reported to ChefSon I'd tried a new recipe for tuna casserole recently, he was slightly intrigued.

A determining feature of any comfort food is that once you've hit upon just the right recipe, you rinse, lather, repeat. You take that dish, and you by golly fix it the same way, predictably, soothingly, time after time after time. I stipulate it is that reason, bottom line, why people like McDonald's and certain other chain fast food venues. It isn't so much about taste.

It is neither about ease or speed so much as comfort encased in the styrofoamed guise of predictability. It is what chains do best. In an otherwise unpredictable world they sell you certainty in the form of reproducible food.

Back to this new tuna casserole. I rushed to assure ChefSon that while I had jumped my usual hoop of "preparing the recipe the way it is written the first time" I had nonetheless added to this new recipe what is for us the obligatory comfortable starting point tastewise for any tuna casserole to succeed. You can offer other tweaks to the mix, but if you want our attention to be potentially followed by our devotion, this particular hot dish must be topped with fiery bits of salty crispy potato. Every bite of any tuna casserole hoping to pass muster, much less our lips, must be first be topped with crumbled jalapeño potato chips.

Thusly reassured, we moved into discussing why I'd bothered to try a new version of an old favorite.

"Nothing exotic going on" I told him, I had ingredients on hand I wanted to use up, and I'd always meant to find a tasty way to get past guiltily using that can of cream of mushroom soup to make an acceptable tuna casserole.

"This recipe for "Mediterranean Tuna Casserole"...." I started to say, and that is when our conversation took an unexpected turn.

ChefSon: (interrupting) Why is it called "Mediterranean"? What's in it?
Me: Artichoke hearts, bell pepper, shallots....
ChefSon: (breaking in again) Mom, are any of those actually Mediterranean ingredients? (no pause for answer) Is there anything in that recipe that actually represents the cuisine of the region? You know most artichokes are grown in California, right?
Me: Yes but....
ChefSon: I hate it when recipes are randomly named "Mediterranean" when there is nothing remotely Mediterranean about them. Is there anything else in there?
Me: Well, tuna, white sauce...
CS: When recipes get stupid labels people don't know any better and they have no idea what to expect when a dish is accurately labeled Mediterranean and actually based on foods from that particular region. I hate it when...
Me: (breaking in) OK, OK, let's agree to just call it Tuna Casserole then, all right?

And there we were. I had blindly accepted the name of the recipe without considering for a moment if that name related in any way to the ingredients in the dish. Do people living in Mediterranean countries ever eat what we think of as tuna casserole? I have my doubts. I had focused on what "Tuna Casserole" means to me giving any thought to what the use of "Mediterranean" in the name of the dish might imply.

Which is or is not crucial, but ChefSon does make a point. If I am going to work on understanding what it is I am cooking and eating at home or in restaurants, I do perhaps need to be more aware of that practice of carelessly slapping regional appellations on recipes or dishes when that bears no relationship to their origin or ingredient list. Inauthentically glamming up a recipe name by throwing in an unrelated food term ought not to be acceptable. Especially not when offered by no less a widely turned to online resource than the Martha Stewart empire.

Yes, this so-called Mediterranean Tuna Casserole is a Martha Stewart recipe.

Historically, when I read one of her brand's Everyday Food recipes, if my immediate reaction is "I'd like that!" and upon closer reading I do not discover some need for a piece of equipment I don't have (stand mixer, say) or the need to spend hours to days jumping through preparation hoops, then I forge ahead with confidence, knowing something predictably good will come out of my time and efforts.
(This photo: Martha Stewart Site)
And this Mediterranean Tuna Casserole, (recipe at link), part of a make one/freeze one for later series offered on the Martha Stewart website, does produce a legitimately delicious dish. That said.....

If I had tried the recipe in an attempt to introduce my family to "Mediterranean" foods? It would have been, even if they liked the taste, a massive fail because there is nothing even remotely Mediterranean about it.

Likewise if I had totally avoided the recipe because of some potentially epic succotash type battle over Mediterranean food in my past. Then I'd have missed something special for no real reason. You could be a Mediterranean Food Avoider of the first order and yet have absolutely no quarrel with this dish. The only thing Mediterranean about this recipe is the term itself, inexplicably thrust into the name of the dish.

In the end it simply matters what you call things. People associate names of foods or regional cuisines with what they already know and like about them. Or in some cases, dislike.

No matter what we call it, I will be preparing this recipe again because it was not only acceptable as a new version of this comfort food for me, it actually appealed to the Hub in this iteration, releasing me to fearlessly throw tuna casserole into our regular rotation. When I next fix this version of tuna casserole however, I think I will call it, "No Soup Tuna Casserole". That is, after all, not only accurate, but what drew me in to try the recipe in the first place.

I followed the recipe, ingredients halved, as written with one exception. After stirring the parmesean cheese meant to be sprinkled on as a topping into the casserole itself, and topped the whole shebang off with two-three handfuls of crumbled jalapeño chips.It was everything I could have hoped for in a new run at an old classic. Creamy, rich, colorful, and I didn't miss the convenience of the can one little bit.

No Soup Tuna Casserole is a winner. Doubtless the sauce-as-substitute-for-can technique will find its way into improving the two other dishes which I previously guiltily prepared, employing as I did, cream of something soup as part of their preparation.

What do you think? Do you care what a dish is called? Have you ever avoided a recipe just going by the title? Do you agree diners ought not be potentially taken in by misattributing a dish or its ingredients? I have to admit, once I thought about it, I was surprised at what seems careless on the part of an otherwise precise and controlled Martha Stewart brand.

Potato potahto, I will call this casserole a keeper and fix it again. If you or somebody you love is a tuna casserole fan, then give this recipe a whirl. Just please don't call it "Mediterranean".


ccwilson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ccwilson said...

For the record, artichokes -are- indigenous to the Mediterranean region, but 100% of artichokes consumed in this country come from California. Is it ok to label a dish 'Mediterranean' because it has -one- ingredient from that region? Does it matter? Does anyone care? Are we tampering with tradition by brazenly using whatever labels we see fit?

Rona Maynard said...

It's been decades since I last made a tuna casserole. I just couldn't bear all that gloppy cream-of-whatever soup. But whatever you want to call it, this sounds delish (thought I'm not sure my husband, who has high blood pressure, would want those tasty handfuls of jalapeno potato chips_. Thanks for the tip--and for making me realize I miss the convenience of casseroles.

TexasDeb said...

Rona - so nice of you to drop in here. The potato chips might be a bad idea for your husband, so perhaps you'll want to stick with the original topping of parmesan cheese.

This casserole is comfort food for me - we don't have many casseroles otherwise although I have easily tripled the number of soups we have as our main meal for the day.

Hope to see you here again soon.