Delicious dairy-free tuna noodle casserole

Even though I can’t have milk, I still crave creamy, carby comfort foods. While mac & cheese is still a pipe dream, one dish which I’ve become pretty good at is an updated oven-baked tuna noodle casserole.

My tuna noodle casserole is slightly classier than the cream-of-mushroom soup recipe I’m sure we’re all familiar with. Even if I didn’t have allergies, I don’t think I could eat anything that pale and bland and lacking in garlic. I’ve adapted mine from a Chow recipe, to suit both my allergies and the commonly available ingredients here in the UK. I don’t think a dish I’d describe as comfort food should require any extra effort for foraging or assembling the ingredients. It should be a dish that you can make with ingredients in your fridge and cupboard.

A potential tuna noodle casserole.That said, I do plan in advance for this casserole and make sure I have fresh parsley on hand. There’s nothing more vile than slimy, half-dead herbs. The real time-consuming part of the dish, other than clean-up, is making the bechamel. It really is worthwhile though, as it provides the creamy, mild base for the casserole. Alternatively, I’m sure you could cook this as an absorption pasta using vegetable broth, but I prefer chucking it all into the oven and letting it get brown and crusty on top.

Finally, if you have leafy celery bits, definitely don’t throw them away. I save them and mix them in with the parsley at the end. It adds a bit more green and brightens up what is otherwise a pretty beige dish.

Dairy-free Tuna Noodle Casserole
For 4 – 6 (or two, with lots leftovers to fuel the Friday afternoon puppy hunt!)

NYT olive oil bechamel made with rice or almond milk.
500g bow-tie pasta, slightly undercooked (keep it slightly wet in case you need to loosen your bechamel)
1 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 red chili (de-seeding optional, so use to taste)
1 tsp English mustard (or more, to taste)
2-3 celery ribs, sliced thin (I usually use all of my leftover celery)
250 g chestnut mushrooms, sliced thin
1 can tuna, drained
Salt-free seasoning (A few good shakes. Don’t skimp!)
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped parsley to serve

Preheat oven to 180c/350f. Using a pan large enough to hold all of your ingredients, saute onions in a little bit of olive oil until they start to turn translucent. Add garlic and chili, cook for another two minutes. Mix in celery and mushrooms, with a bit more oil if necessary. Season with salt-free seasoning, and cook for a little bit longer. Flake in tuna, and coat with bechamel. Add mustard to taste. Mix in pasta. You can either add some of the pasta water or vegetable broth to thin if necessary, but the sauce should be quite thick and coat everything.

The finished casserole.

Job done!

Pour into casserole dish, cover, pop in the oven and cook for 20 – 30 mins, or about the time it takes to make a salad, so it’s crispy at the edges and browned on top. I usually take the lid off for the last 10 minutes as I like the top to be really dried out and chewy.

Serve with chopped parsley. I like to mix it all the way through, as it brightens the dish quite a bit, and seriously… we’re not going for presentation here.

This recipe obviously differs from a traditional tuna noodle with the omission of frozen peas. Peas are a legume and have been a no-no for me for pretty much my entire life. I try to make up for it by adding extra celery and parsley. Or, you could be like us and do a salad to go with, as this isn’t really something to make if you’re attempting to keep a majority of green things in your dinner.

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Clean house, can’t fail

We might not have a dog, but we’re more than ready chez nous. The landlord came round last night to talk about the possibility, and to do a walkthrough. Cue house cleaning so fierce it needs its own montage and soundtrack.

TMM has been in our delightful former railway cottage for almost five months now, successfully managing to unpack almost nothing during that time. My visits on the weekend were usually a combination of blowing off steam, coordinating wedding business with both families, and it always ended in tears and a sulk when I had to steel myself to get up at 5 am to go away for another working week. We successfully accomplishing nothing. So, a big clean had been coming, and a visit from the landlord to vet our suitability for owning a dog/not destroying our rental was a suitable kick into gear.

The result was incredibly satisfying. This is the first house I have actually finished moving into since I left home in 2008. And, if we had a nicer couch (more to the point, a TV), I would totally spend more time in our cute and spartan living room.

Would you guess all of the furniture is secondhand? Thought so.

Not shown: Our mountain of cardboard in the other corner.

The kitchen is super cute and gets two pictures. It’s been clean since I moved in, because it’s the room I spent almost all of my waking moments in, especially now that we have a kitchen table I can do my writing on. It also has tiles, which I love. Most of the houses I’ve been in since moving here have had linoleum or similar in the kitchen. Which is disgusting. There’s nothing worse than the sticky, plasticky feeling under your feet. I blame the synthetic flooring, and the constant cold, for my bad habit of socks and slippers indoors at all time, which requires hours of barefoot beach time back in California to get in any fit shape for flip-flops.

Tiny tiny fridge

We bought a real vase for the visit. Previously had been using empty wine bottles. Classy? No. Convenient and easy to dispose? Yes.

Extra coats fight for space with aprons.

My lovely £20 Salvation Army sideboard. Stores our shoes and house slippers and looks so much nicer than anything we would overpay for at Ikea.

The bedrooms went pretty quickly. The spare room has remained fairly clean, as it’s really only being used to store our clothes and various household necessities that don’t fit in the pantry. The last few boxes, which of course belong to TMM, are also in there. I’m refusing to unpack them, but I have offered several times to just throw the entirety into the trash. TMM has not taken me up on that so far, but there’s always hope. Our master bedroom is nothing to look at, but I’ve managed to clear one corner, next to the window, where either the dog bed or crate is going to go. TMM disagrees. He may not have a choice.

And, the million dollar question: was the landlord impressed? I think so. Turns out, he’s dog people too. He, and his wife, understood what it meant when I said a dog “talks” rather than “barks.” And they were just fine with us getting a dog.

So the hunt starts in earnest from Friday at noon. We’re tackling the local rescues first, in the early afternoon. Saturday we’ll do a big birthday breakfast and then my “golden triangle” route, from Cheshire, to NE Manchester, to Liverpool, if we’ve got the fortitude. If we strike out, we’ll just try it again next weekend, and the weekend after that. We may very well break 10,000 miles on the bike in the process.

Can’t think of a better way to do so myself.

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16 & Pregnant vs. Underage & Pregnant

I love the BBC. In the pie chart of reasons why I moved to the UK, it’s a colour you would see right away. There’s Doctor Who and Masterpiece Theatre-destined exports, and crazy docu-series, including high-brow versions of trashy American TV. Case in point: Underage & Pregnant.

Like 16 & Pregnant it seemed to have spawned from the Juno zeitgeist, with both premiering in June 2009. However, unlike 16, Underage is slightly misleading. One of my favourite bits of 16 is the reveal at the beginning of the show. You know: “I’m a normal teenager! I like doughnuts! My boyfriend is sooo sweet! I do art! And… I’m six months pregnant.” And then you recoil as far back into the couch as you can because seriously? That bump is huge. It’s cheesy, but fantastic; MTV’s does some effective editing to ensure, even though you know it’s there, you don’t really see Baby-to-Be until that moment. Cheap thrills.

Underage? Not so much. I think because it’s a BBC show it needs to show the license fee payers that they’re getting something of value, something educational. So, it follows the relationship dynamics of a 16 – 18 year old, her baby, and her family, friends and/or support system. Sometimes there’s the bump-to-birth, other times you’ll jump right in to family life, (not) managing school, housing and a child. And, there are some pretty depressing stories. Coping with a disabled child, coping with a child after your baby daddy dies, coping with having no friends. It’s all very grey, but in a non-judgemental way.

16 also has a script that it follows pretty consistently in each episode. Nesting, fighting with the baby daddy, painful labour, and, my personal favourite: the “how did it happen” chat with their friends. The educational bit. The bit where you smack your head against a wall and wonder how people can be so stupid.

That’s what’s up.

I definitely prefer 16. The mix of cluelessness and optimism is much more “reality TV,” and hence, essential viewing stretched out on the couch on Saturday mornings in a bathrobe. Even as you’re engaging in a bit of schadenfreude, you still manage to care for most of the stories being followed. I also keep the fact they have a tidy bit of renumeration coming from participating on the show in the back of my mind. 16 also has drama: fights with parents, fights with boyfriends, fights with friends. I know half of it’s fake, and done up for the cameras, that makes it all the better.

Underage unfortunately requires too much thought. It’s grim, realistic and depressing. You get pregnant at 16, you have to drop out of school, you’re not going to be a doctor, your boyfriend’s a loser, your parents hate you, your friends think you’re strange, you’re not shaped like other teen girls anymore and you’re depressed. I haven’t watched the entire three series’ but it’s definitely not something I put on to feel better about the world.

Winner: Definitely, definitely 16 & Pregnant.

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Does no more shuttles mean no more Space Camp?

Obviously bingeing on NASA-related content this weekend with the Atlantis launch/space exploration wake. It’s overall been depressing, but a bright spot is the lovely retrospectives. Slate jumped in with an adorable picture essay on Space Camp which got me googling for some shuttle pop culture nostalgia.

The late 80’s collection of press photos, with kids gleefully geeking out are just perfect. I wanted to go to Space Camp for the longest time as a kid. My summers were spent with books instead of camps though. I’m sure this contributed to my science fiction addiction, so I can’t complain. Heinlein’s ‘Space Cadet‘ was a great gateway drug, though I’d be interested in reading his juveniles now for both pleasure and to spot the casual chauvinism.

No mention of Space Camp would be complete without this movie.

I asked TMM if he had ever watched a movie about Space Camp.

“You mean ‘SpaceCamp’? The one about the kids who have to go into space because one of the SRBs accidentally got ignited, and they had to switch the other one on and go up because there was no way to switch them off.”

That’s the one. He then added: “I watched it in cinema.”

I knew there was a reason we got married.

Shuttle flight deck at Space Camp, U.S. Space and Rocket Center

Space Camp has always known rompers were hot.

I’m pretty sure I had the novelization of the film which I’m sure, like all of my other YA paperbacks, I absolutely destroyed. That’s what Amazon is for though! Obviously, I never went to Space Camp, though I did date someone who did. Kind of the same? No? Oh well. Doing some internetting I found that there is an adult space camp option in Alabama. I won’t lie and say I’m not at all tempted. However, I think my imagination has contracted a bit over the last decade. For me, I would think most of the thrill about going to Space Camp is, for at least that time until you realize you don’t have the mental capacity to pass calculus, that you can believe someday you might be an astronaut.

With the Shuttle program now in its end stage, and Discovery and Endeavour being stripped and sanitized for delivery to their final resting places, I have to wonder if kids growing up five years from now are going to even want to be astronauts. I doubt the end of the shuttles will mean the death of the dream of exploration for the sort of curious and geeky types; we were never in doubt. But is it gradually going to become an elite sort of affectation? In some ways, it already is, when you ask your fellow countrymen how to solve the budget crises and they say “Cut NASA.” So does it mean it’s even more likely that the average American child is no longer going to be exposed to the idea of that there’s more to life than the quotidian.

I guess my little 80s/90s pop culture binge hasn’t helped. The Drive By Truckers are probably more appropriate to listen to this weekend anyways. And, watching a bit of YouTube, SpaceCamp definitely hasn’t aged well.

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The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Aloo Kofta

Now that we’re back from the wedding, I’m getting to the important business of cooking from my new cookbooks. I’m on a bit of a meat hangover from South Africa; it’s not a complaint, but after three weeks straight of meat-heavy mains, with biltong and droewors (dried jerky or sausage) to snack on during the day, I was seriously worried about developing gout.

I’ve been really enjoying reading Amanda Hesser’s recipe introductions in The Essential New York Times cookbook, but I didn’t expect the first recipe to jump out to be for Indian food. However, the Aloo Kofta (fried potato cutlets) just made me drool.

I’m not normally one for fried foods, and although vegetarian they definitely don’t count as light. The cakes were very nice and actually quite non-traditional. Instead of drowning them in a thick gravy, they’re served as is. The cumin seeds weren’t tempered, just added in, and I liked the inclusion of the spring onions. I used the white bottoms and the green tops, and added slightly more than the recipe called for lighten the mashed potato a bit further, especially as I wasn’t using peas in the recipe. Strangely the recipe calls for the potaotes to be peeled. Not quite sure where the fun is in that, so I blithely ignored it. I also used my pav bhaji blend instead of garam masala as I prefer the aromatic. Finally, there’s quite a bit of oil. Next time I make these, and I know they’ll be a repeat request by TMM, I’ll use my non-stick frying pan and just enough oil to toast them.

Aloo kofta with baingan bharta & coriander chutney

Aloo kofta with baingan bharta & coriander chutney

Aloo Kofta
Adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook (or the original article by Denise Landis)

3 large potatoes
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp garam masala blend (I used pav bhaji spice)
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped scallions (I used 1/2 bunch)
1 tbsp chopped coriander (I left this out as TMM complained it tasted “green”)
1/2 cup flour
Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
Oil for frying (Recipe calls for 1 cup, I thought this was far too much!)

Boil the potatoes in salted water. Drain well and mash in a mixing bowl. Add cornstarch, cumin, masala and lemon juice. Season to taste and then fold in spring onions and coriander. Roll the cutlets into 1-1/2 inch balls and roll in flour to coat. (At this point I flattened the cakes too so they looked more like hash browns). Heat oil in pan, and fry cutlets until golden brown. Blot on paper towels and season again if you must.

To accompany it I made a baingan bharta (curried eggplant) and a zingy coriander-mint chutney. All were delicious the next morning too, even cold.

Happy 4th of July, incidentally. We are celebrating tonight by going to see Bridesmaids (2-for-1 movie night, also my choice) and having leftover vegetable Thai red curry. There are some sparklers kicking around upstairs from Bonfire Night 2009, so who knows. We might still have a bit of excitement later in the evening.

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Cholmondeley Castle visit

View of Cholmondeley Castle from the Temple Water Gardens.Three things to know about Cholmondeley Castle:

1) It’s pronounced “chum-ley.”
2) The times that you will want to visit are not the times that it is open.
3) You can’t visit the castle, but the gardens are more than enough for a day out.

We took a visit during their second open week of the season at the beginning of the current, delightful spell of spring sunshine and warmth. It’s the type of place that makes me wish I had a dog, and a car, though the trip on a motorcycle with TMM wasn’t terrible either.

Cholmondeley isn’t the sort of place I would usually visit, but I have seen this advertisement every Monday morning and Friday afternoon for ages now at the Crewe Rail Station and it seemed a pity to miss out on a daffodil spectacular, what with the flowers blooming like mad everywhere else! We had hoped to go on a Saturday, but see #2, so instead we visited on Sunday, their only weekend open day.

I see this twice a week, every week.

As seen twice a week, every week...

It is nice drive along some lovely country roads to get to the estate, with the usual long gravel drive. We passed a lake and large lawn where you can have picnics; people were flying kites too, which was lovely. Since we had the motorcycle, we were able to park on the special gravel coach parking area instead of grass (which we shared with some classic cars that TMM was much more interested in that me. One was red.). Right away we entered the Temple Water Garden, Cholmondeley’s centerpiece display.

The garden is absolutely gorgeous, I don’t think we could have picked a better time of year to go as the cherry blossoms were out and created a gorgeous framing of the path around the lake. We spent quite a bit of time here as TMM was playing with our “new-to-you” DSLR (thanks poppy!). I had a good time with my little Canon, and dogling the pensioners and their pups. Unfortunately, the sort of crowd in the gardens while we were there didn’t seem to be too friendly, so I didn’t get to say hello to the Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Shi-Tzus, Beagle or the two long-haired miniature Dachshunds. Sigh.

Cherry blossoms in the Temple Water Gardens

Blue sky? Cherry blossoms? Amazing.

We had a little fun in the Rose Garden, trying to figure out the time on the sundial, but the garden itself was still in a winter planting, so very “branchy.” We traipsed across the lawn to the Duckery, which felt slightly illicit, but I couldn’t see any other path, so went for it. There were no ducks, but there was sunshine to enjoy. I also appreciate the word “duckery,” I think that class of names for housing ending in -ery is really underutilized. The sun was out in full force at this point, and it was at this point that the downside of riding around on a motorcycle manifested. In the movies, they don’t tell you that no matter how cool you look, you’ve still got to carry around 15 lbs of helmet and gear at your destination.

We made a tactical error in not bringing a picnic, so much like a hungry and tired small child, TMM appeased me by taking me to the farm animals. The Cholmondeley website advertises an aviary, and I had something in mind like the one at Harewood House. It was more like a few chicken coops in front of the stables. The rare breeds, including very hairy ginger pigs were cool to see and scratch. The paddock of Common English Llamas was a little bizarre, but perhaps the farm was just branching away from pygmy goats?

Facing a long walk back to the bike, we opted not to look at the family’s chapel or the walk up to Tower Hill, which I hope to come back for and try during the summer. We looked for, but didn’t see the Mosaic on the way up to ogle the castle, and unfortunately the daffodil meadow which had me so stoked about our visit, was not in evidence. The castle itself isn’t anything to write home about. The stone looks very clean and smooth, so I suppose there are commendations in order for the Marquess and family for keeping it in good condition and out of the hands of the National Trust.

It was a good day out. Admission wasn’t overpriced at £5, and I appreciated that they didn’t charge on top of that for parking. The tea room was busy, but still had enough seating, and we saw plenty of children and dogs, which, (together), are always the sign for me of a good place to visit.

And on the way out, I did see some daffodils.

Daffodils in the Temple Water Garden

Hello yellow!

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I am more excited about the Royal Wedding than my own.

True fact: This month I am more stoked about the impending nuptials of William and Catherine than I am my own June wedding. And not just because I have had two four-day-weekends in a row.

Right now in Halifax, West Yorkshire, there is bunting in the Piece Hall and decorations in the shop windows. “Congratulations Wills and Kate,” “We’re open from 1 pm on Friday in honour of the Royal Wedding,” step in to buy your commemorative china, biscuit tins,  Union Jack party pieces, royal family masks.*

As an anglophile American living in England I feel happily duty bound to be excited and enthusiastic about this wedding. But it’s more than that. I’ll freely admit to having a sense of envy at the amount of dialogue and excitement and atmosphere being created around this wedding. “We’re so happy about it,” to “Why are we bothering?” “Not the Royal Wedding” celebrations and announcements in the local papers of the street closures for parties on the 29th. I’m living in a country that is (like it or not) unified in culture by virtue of having one of the world’s last great monarchies and its Royal Family, and even the ‘mehs’ are contributing.

I can’t imagine what would be required to create a special, one-off, national holiday which all Americans across all 50 states marked, even in opposition. Growing up in California, three hours behind “real America,” I’ll freely admit to having no emotional connection with the rest of the country with regards to national celebrations. Holidays are for family, not so much for country. The stereotypical American things for Fourth of July, of parades and festivals and fireworks really were non-existent for this Bay Area brat.** Fireworks, especially, because of the (assumed) almost constant risk of fire. New Years Eve broadcasts are tape delayed, and recorded at 9 pm anyways in LA. We’re Catholic; Easter is actually a thing for us. We’re Hindu; Diwali is a thing too, but we expect to be in the minority for that. The closest I think we come to a unified front with the rest of the country is Thanksgiving, and even then, we barbeque our turkey and keep the stuffing on separate for our Hindu veg guests.

I wouldn’t trade how my family celebrates our holidays for the world (I’m abandoning TMM for an extra month during our first year of married life so I don’t miss a fourth Thanksgiving in a row. He will undoubtedly not miss his fourth overcooked turkey in a row.). However, I’m pleased as punch that I’m here in England where I can be part of a happy national holiday.

So, I’ll unashamedly collect my tat. Mugs, totes, biscuit tins, I might throw in a tea towel or two. I’ll read every last scrap of news that comes my way about the wedding plans. I will bake cupcakes and decorate them with lemon curd. We’ll have a braai, even if it rains. We’ll drink out of my rocking retro green Gainsborough tea set. I’ll put on a pretty dress to watch parades and processionals in bed on YouTube. But most happily, on Friday 29 July, I will be celebrating a wedding along with an entire country.

And on Saturday, April 30, I’ll start the countdown to my own right royal occasion.

*I will freely admit buying out the last few Royal Wedding bags for life (cotton eco-totes) at The Body Shop in Halifax. I did not buy the Wills and Kate masks. A bridge too far for wedding tat.
**My attitude has since changed about the Fourth of July. It’s impossible to spend the happiest 4th in DC, being a proper tourist at the reading of the Declaration of Independence in front of the National Archives, watching from a roof as fireworks explode above the National Monument, and laughing and dancing and setting off sparklers into the night without experiencing an epiphany or two.

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