Early spring in the Pacific Northwest can get pretty dark and dreary, and sometimes, all you want is comfort food. In this case, that translates to immense amounts of cheese and carbs, plus some protein and a vegetable thrown in for good measure.
This recipe is basically a spiced-up version of the classic cheesy tuna mac that graced so many of our kitchen tables growing up. Like all true macaroni and cheese recipes, it starts with a bechamel. I used a whole pound of smoky, creamy Gouda, but you could use a different kind of Gouda, white cheddar, Parmesan or a mixture. The key is to pick a cheese (or cheeses) that will melt well and lend the dish a deep, smoky flavor.
As for the macaroni, the gluten-free choices are pretty limited, but I opted for the smaller macaroni. Gluten-free pastas tend to break up easily, but smaller noodles seem to hold together better.
Now it’s tuna time. *Rubs hands gleefully* Before I studied abroad in Spain, I had no idea you could even buy canned tuna that wasn’t flaked and packed in water. Before my trip, I wasn’t especially fond of canned tuna. It always reminded me of flavorless cat food. But my Spanish host mom introduced me to solid tuna packed in olive oil and WOW. Night and day in terms of flavor. It is more expensive, but it’s still much cheaper than most meat, so why not splurge a little?
I chose red bell pepper as the one veggie in this recipe, because it works well with the tuna. It also adds a crunch and a nice pop of color. But you could add just about anything to this dish to make it a bit healthier: kale, spinach, peas, red onions, leeks, broccoli, tomatoes, avocado… The options are endless.
Making the bechamel from scratch is time-consuming, but it’s so, so good. I adapted this recipe from Epicurious, and the key is to WHISK CONSTANTLY. (Also the key is to use lots of butter, whole milk and cream.) I worried using gluten-free flour would make for a weird roux and therefore a weird bechamel, but it was totally fine because I was WHISKING CONSTANTLY. Moral of the story? As long as you whisk, you’re good.
The bechamel – and its pound of smoked Gouda – makes this recipe, but the mustard and paprika really make it pop. Don’t be shy – if you think it needs more mustard, go for it.
Smoky Tuna Mac and Cheese
- 12-16 ounces macaroni (see note)
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- ½ cup (1 stick) butter
- 5 tablespoons gluten-free flour
- 4 cups (1 quart) whole milk
- ¾ cup cream
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 lb smoked gouda, roughly grated
- 2 cans solid tuna packed in oil
- Parsley, for garnish
- Squeeze of lemon
- Prepare macaroni according to package directions, taking extra care not to overcook. Pasta should be cooked al dente, or slightly chewy.
- Drain pasta and add bell pepper to colander, tossing to mix. Set aside. Bell pepper will soften slightly but maintain its crunch.
- For the roux, melt butter in large saucepan over medium-low heat. Sprinkle flour in a couple tablespoons at a time, whisking constantly. Continue whisking and cook about 4 minutes, until mixture is golden-brown.
- Slowly add in milk and cream, whisking constantly. Bring to a low boil over medium-high, still stirring. Reduce to a simmer, cooking about 3 more minutes, until sauce is thick and coats the back of a spoon.
- Stir in salt, mustard, paprika and nutmeg.
- Now, add cheese in batches, waiting until one batch melts before adding more. Continue stirring and adding cheese until it’s gone. Taste your sauce and add more seasonings if necessary. Remove from heat.
- Carefully stir in macaroni, bell peppers and tuna until ingredients are mixed well. Serve, garnishing with parsley and a squeeze of lemon.