Dollar Store Challenge: Tuna Noodle Casserole Recipe

One of the culinary challenges I’ve heard people talking about is to make a meal out of ingredients bought entirely from somewhere that doesn’t specialize in food. Gas stations, convenience stores, discount stores, that kind of thing. Here is the rules that I’ve seen:

1) Ingredients must all come from a single location. Exceptions can be made for water, small amounts of salt, pepper, oil, and commonly-available, inexpensive dried spices.
2) Ingredients purchased must come in under a certain budget (I chose $10.00 before tax).
3) The meal should feed at least four adults.
4) There must be some actual cooking involved. You may combine ingredients from instant meals or canned goods, but they can’t be served as-is with no changes.
5) The meal should be as healthy as possible; it should not be able to be mistaken for a dessert.

There is a lot of food available at the local Dollarama, but most of it is junk food. Chips, candy, chocolate, soft drinks, that kind of thing. There is a small section near the back of regular food, but nothing is perishable. I wanted to include some fruit and/or veggies in the meal, and preferably a bit of meat if possible, so that narrowed my choices even further. I was tempted to make spaghetti with tomato sauce (there was both pre-made spaghetti sauce and canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and Italian spice mix), or canned soup/stew with Bisquick dumplings, or pancakes with canned fruit (there was pancake mix, coconut milk to replace cow’s milk, canola oil and applesauce to replace the eggs, and a couple of kinds of canned fruit as the topping). However, I finally decided on a tuna noodle casserole.

My ingredients were:

2 x Pacific Pride Flaked Light Tuna in Water 130g @ $1.00/ea
1 x Fruitropic Coconut Milk 398mL @ $1.25/ea
2 x Aylmer Vacuum-Packed Whole-Kernel Corn 341mL @ $1.00/ea
2 x Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup 284mL @ $1.00/ea
1 x Buongusto Macaroni 900g @ $1.00/ea
1 x Old Dutch Original Potato Chips 40g @ $0.50/ea

Subtotal: $8.75 + tax
Total with tax: $8.82

(Only the chips were taxable.)

I was very happy with the end result, which I based on the Campbell’s® Tuna Noodle Casserole from Allrecipes.com. Of course, I had to make changes for the available ingredients, but I had to start somewhere. For example, I replaced milk with coconut milk, frozen peas with canned corn, egg noodles with macaroni, and the dry bread crumb and butter topping with plain crushed potato chips. Even so, it worked really well! I think that I will probably make this recipe again, but not in challenge-mode, so that I can use frozen corn instead of canned since I greatly prefer the taste of frozen.

As a bonus, it’s a great meal for camping (cooked in a pot instead of baked), cottaging, or when trying to clean out the pantry, since all of the ingredients are non-perishable. And at $2.21 a head (assuming it serves the minimum four people), it’s pretty darned affordable. Out of challenge mode, with a bit of bargain shopping at the supermarket, it could be made even cheaper. Around here, I know that cans of cream of mushroom soup often go on sale for $0.50 each, coconut milk is about $0.98, a big bag of frozen corn often costs about $2.00, and dried noodles sometimes go on sale for less than $1.00 a bag. This is all assuming you don’t buy the big name-brand version stuff, of course.

So here’s the recipe:

Dollar Store Tuna Noodle Casserole
Serves 4-6 adults

Fill a medium-sized pot three-quarters of the way with water. Add:
a pinch of salt
Bring the water to the boil on the stove on high heat. Add:
2 1/4 cups dried macaroni
Turn the burner down to medium-high. Cook the pasta until it is al dente. Drain the pasta and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 400°F (205°C).
In a casserole dish that holds at least 2 quarts (1.9L), add:
2 cans condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 cup canned coconut milk*
2 x 341mL cans of whole-kernel corn, drained and rinsed OR 2 cups frozen corn
2 x 130g cans of tuna packed in water, drained and broken up with a fork
Mix well. Add the drained pasta to the sauce mixture, stirring well to evenly distribute the ingredients. Put casserole into the oven uncovered. Bake for 30 minutes or until warmed through**.
Remove casserole from the oven. Open and crush in the bag:
1 40g bag of plain potato chips
Stir the casserole. Sprinkle the crushed chips onto the top of the casserole and bake for an additional 5 minutes. Remove from oven and serve.

*Canned coconut milk tends to separate, so stir it well before measuring.
**If you are cooking this on the stove, heat mixture gently in a pot until it is warmed through and sauce is slightly thickened. Skip the next baking step, and instead garnish each individual serving with a sprinkling of crushed potato chips.

Childhood Family Dinner

Yesterday I had a million and one things to do in order to prep for the party on Saturday, so I really needed to make a dinner that I could probably have cooked in my sleep. This was the kind of dinner that I had regularly as a kid and was one of the staples of how I learned how to cook, way back when. A few small things have changed here and there, but it basically tastes the same.

I baked chicken thighs that were sprinkled with powdered onion soup mix. When I was a kid, boned and skinned meat was way too expensive for everyday meals, so it would have been whole chicken legs (drumstick and thigh), bone-in, skin-on. I served it with whipped potatoes; as a kid, that would simply have been mashed, no fancy schmancy electronics like a hand mixer. The corn was exactly what I grew up with: boiled from frozen, generally in the microwave.

We ate all kinds of other food, of course. My mom used to hang out with a Lebanese couple, and they exchanged recipes and techniques, so Mom made great Lebanese food. We ate all kinds of pasta and roasts and fancy Sunday dinners. But when push came to shove and we had something going on on a weekday evening (and with both my brother and I in hockey and Guiding/Scouting, that was most evenings), this was our fast, easy, everybody-likes-it kind of meal. To me, this kind of dish is a comfort food, because it brings back fond memories of family togetherness. And as a bonus, now that I’m a parent myself, there’s nothing in a supper like this that I have to fight to get my kids to eat!

Oh, and if you think that my parents wouldn’t have served supper on a plate with a skull and bones on it, on top of a skeleton-print tablecloth, you probably haven’t met my parents. Trust me, if they’d had those things, they would have used them in a heartbeat.

Summer Supper

Yesterday’s supper was very simple and was also completely based on what I found on sale at the grocery store over the weekend. A decent steak was on sale for less than the going rate for ground beef, so we had steak. Corn on the cob was only $0.15 per ear, so we had corn. Peaches and strawberries are in season and I had a few too many in my fridge, so I made pie for dessert.

Since I was busy making the pies indoors, my husband cooked the steaks (with a sprinkle of Montreal steak spice) and the corn (still in its husk) on the barbecue. The steak was melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the corn, while not the sweetest, was still tasty. In retrospect, the steaks were a little large. Okay, they were huge. I cut off about a third of mine to give to Thing 1, and my husband shared his with Thing 2, and we still were stuffed before we got to the corn. That’s okay, we had the corn as a night snack, along with some pie.

If you’re wondering what the brown lumps are at the end of my corn cobs, they are corn holders shaped like beavers eating corn. I thought that they were cute in the store, but they aren’t dishwasher safe so I wasn’t going to buy them. Surprisingly, it was my husband who fell in love with them and insisted that we bring them home (on my condition that he can hand-wash them if he likes them so much).

The pie was peach and strawberry with streusel topping, which was still warm and gooey from the oven when we cut into it. As usual, I used the Purity Pastry crust from page 73 of the Purity Cookbook (2001 edition), which remains my favourite. For the filling, I used the fresh fruit pie formula on page 228 of The Canadian Living Cookbook by Carol Ferguson (1987), and the streusel topping recipe on page 226. I cut the sugar back by a third, since I like the flavour of my pies to have a stronger emphasis on the the fruit flavour instead of the sweetness. To be honest, what I’d really wanted to make was plain peach streusel pie, as it is recommended in the meal planning section of the book as part of a typical Ontario country-style feast. However, I didn’t quite have enough peaches, and I did have some strawberries that needed eating, so I improvised.