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Tuna fish: from cracker spread to casserole creation

THE other evening I decided to have tuna fish on crackers for a light supper. The plan was to make the traditional family mix of drained canned tuna, mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish, and table or prepared mustard. Eagerly I went to the refrigerator to get my ingredients, only to discover there was no pickle relish. Yikes! What could I do? My taste buds yearned for tuna.

Why not try something new? I surveyed my condiment shelf. I bravely grabbed the mayonnaise, French-style salad dressing, and Texas-style barbecue sauce.

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Gingerly I mixed unmeasured amounts of each, and voil'a! - a spicy new tuna spread!

This little adventure in tuna improvisation started me pondering the versatility of canned tuna. There are as many varieties of tuna spreads as there are tuna eaters. The most basic spread is made with mayonnaise, drained tuna, and chopped celery. Many people like to add chopped hard-boiled egg or onion.

Also, there is a debate as to which tuna to use - light or dark, packed in oil or water. Some tuna gourmets will buy only solid white tuna or albacore canned in spring water. It's a matter of taste and pocketbooks. Light tuna in oil costs the least. Albacore in water sometimes costs as much as 50 cents to a dollar more. Of course, there are always those who will eat only fresh tuna, now available at most fish markets and grocery stores.

Hot or cold, canned tuna is one of America's most popular ``fast foods.'' Not only versatility, but ease and economy, make it a common kitchen-shelf item. Besides its popularity as a ``brown bag'' request, it's also a good meal stretcher for large families.

A casserole - using a 6-ounce can of tuna, elbow macaroni, and a can of condensed mushroom soup, plus a side dish of vegetables - inexpensively fed our family of seven. (After moving out on my own, I spiced up my mother's recipe, adding onion, garlic, and cheese.) We also had canned tuna mixed into a medium white sauce, served over toast. This was not always popular with the children, however.

The uses of canned tuna are endless. It's great with a tossed salad, served on crackers as canap'es, mixed with vegetables and pasta for casseroles, or even straight out of the can.

Jazzed-up Tuna Casserole 2 cups uncooked elbow macaroni 1 can condensed mushroom soup 1 6 1/2 ounce canned tuna, drained 1 cup cheddar cheese, cubed 1/3 cup mild onion, coarsely chopped Salt, pepper, garlic salt to taste 1 cup butter-flavored crackers, roughly crushed Cheddar cheese, thin slices, to cover casserole

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Cook and drain macaroni. Add all ingredients except crackers and Cheddar slices. Mix and pour into 11/2- or 2-quart casserole dish. Spread crackers on top and cover with Cheddar slices. Cook 30 minutes at 375 degrees F.

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