Uncle Larry called yesterday, as he often does now, to ask me how to make tuna casserole for just one person.
He loves old-fashioned tuna casserole and hadn’t had it for some time. I knew, although he didn’t say it, that he wanted comfort food, something my Aunt Betty would have made for him just the way he likes it.
Aunt Betty died only three months ago, suddenly and unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, from an abdominal aortic aneurism that “blew,” as they say. It was a stunning, horrendous shock to the entire family, and we are all still trying to recover.
But for Larry, now alone for the first time in more than 50 years, life changed forever that night. He lost the love of his life, his soul mate, his partner in everything they did, from finishing college together through building a house, raising three boys, work and retirement; from fishing to crabbing, shrimping, clamming and traveling, they were never apart.
His three adult sons see to it that most of his weekends are busy, but Monday morning dawns, and the daily struggle to figure out how to live without her starts all over again. And often, he picks up the phone with a cooking question.
Betty and I grew up in each other’s kitchens, learning to cook from our moms. We cooked alike, ate alike and shared many a recipe as well as many happy cooking sessions in our kitchens. Larry has all of Betty’s cookbooks and her favorite recipe box, but he says “things just don’t taste the same” when he makes them. So he calls.
I understand that he really just wants to talk, about her garden and how he’s putting it into “sleep” mode for the winter; about her cedar chest full of patchwork quilts she spent winter evenings stitching and what he should do with them; about her antique cuckoo clock that stopped and maybe I know how to restart it; about her clothes that he can’t bring himself to get rid of just yet; about the seeds she put away that he found in the shed and wants to plant but doesn’t know when he should or where; and about tuna casserole and how to make it for just one person.
In these weeks since Betty left Larry (and all of us) to go on without her, I’ve given him recipes for making rhubarb jam from their huge and healthy “pie plant,” applesauce and apple butter from their prodigiously producing tree, how to blanch and freeze the excess tomatoes from her prize-winning garden (Betty was a Master Gardener), and at least six things to do with fresh green beans.
He’s learned how to deal with the washing machine and dryer and when to change sheets and clean bathrooms. We’ve talked about market shopping, food prices and how long to keep leftovers. But, from time to time, the loneliness and emptiness overwhelm him, and he calls, just needing to know “How do I make tuna casserole for one?”
I can give him a recipe for that, along with “our” clam chowder recipe and the secret sauce she made for her salmon cakes. My heart aches, however, because I have no recipe to give this lonely man I care so much about when he asks me, “How do I get used to her not being here?”
It has dawned on me, thanks to Uncle Larry, that I very seldom do recipes for single persons, whether widower, widow or single by choice or fate. I am, unthinkingly, usually doing recipes designed for families of four or more, occasionally for only two.
I do remember, from the time I lived alone after a divorce, that it isn’t easy to cook for one, especially when it’s so convenient just to pick up a frozen dinner or a quick takeout. I’ll try to make up for that with these recipes, designed to feed just one person but easily increased enough to make leftovers available for a warm-up next evening.
TUNA SPAGHETTI, QUICK & EASY
4 oz. spaghetti noodles
1 T. quality olive oil
2 rolled anchovy fillets (the kind in water, with capers)
1-3 cloves garlic, minced (to your taste)
1 can (8 oz.) or ½ can (14 oz.) chunky “ready for pasta” tomatoes
2 T. dry white wine
1 can white tuna in water, well drained
1-2 T. chopped parsley
Cook the pasta noodles according to package instructions; drain and keep warm in pan while you make the tuna sauce.
Heat a skillet over low heat; add olive oil and heat oil to shimmering. Add anchovy with some of the capers and the garlic. Sauté for 2 min., smashing the mixture with the back of a fork. Stir in the tomatoes and wine, increase heat and cook the sauce about 5 min., or until it thickens slightly. Add tuna and parsley, breaking the tuna up into chunks as you mix.
Add drained pasta to the sauce, season to taste with salt and pepper (remember, the anchovy is salty, so be careful to taste) and serve, with a green salad and garlic bread, and some freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top, if desired. Serves 1.
Note: If you can’t stand anchovies, leave them out and just smash the garlic, or substitute a drained sardine; adjust salt to taste accordingly.
Betty and Larry always worried about Larry’s cholesterol numbers and she cooked accordingly. Now he has to worry about it for himself, and learn to cook with attention. This fish/vegetable combination is a tasty but low-cholesterol dish that can be varied with the addition of other vegetables and/or fish. This will make about 3 cups, enough for a meal for one, with probably a bit left over for lunch.
FISH & VEGETABLE STEW
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/3 cup chopped celery
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 can (14 oz.) chopped or diced tomatoes
1 T. malt vinegar (or use balsamic if you don’t have malt vinegar)
1 t. Worcestershire sauce
2-3 T. dry white wine
1/2 t. dried basil (or 1-2 t. chopped fresh)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup sliced carrots
1/2 cup frozen whole kernel corn (or fresh off the cob, if available)
1/2 cup frozen lima beans (or fresh green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces)
1/2 lb. (approx.) fish fillets, cut into chunks about 2-3 inches
Coat a heavy pot or Dutch oven with cooking spray and place over med.-high heat until hot. Add onion, celery and garlic; saute until tender (careful not to burn the garlic). Stir in the tomatoes, vinegar, Worcestershire, wine, basil, salt, pepper and water. Bring to a boil, add remaining ingredients. Add a bit more water if you want more liquid in your stew. Cover, reduce heat and simmer 20 min., stirring occasionally. Serve in warmed bowls, with crusty bread to dip in the stew.
You’re alone and in need of something sweet and comforting? Try this quick microwave recipe for chocolate pudding I happily discovered long ago in an old Cooking Light magazine. Be sure to use top quality cocoa, and if you’re not alone, double it.
HOME ALONE CHOCOLATE PUDDING
3 T. sugar
2 T. Dutch process cocoa
1 T. cornstarch
3/4 cup milk (use low-fat if you must)
1/4 t. vanilla
Combine sugar, cocoa and cornstarch in a 1-quart glass measuring cup or bowl; stir well. Gradually add milk, mixing with a whisk as you add.
Microwave the milk mixture at high level for 1 1/2 min.; stir mixture well and microwave again at medium-high (70 percent power) for 1 1/2 min. more, or until mixture is thickened.
Remove from microwave, add vanilla, stirring well with a wire whisk. Serve. Makes 3/4 cup pudding. Add a small dollop of whipped cream, if desired.