Mary Poppins and The Pasta Bake

I am in admiration of all my children working full time, but frankly horrified at the price they now have to pay for child care. Thirty years ago like so many women who wanted to keep their foot on the career ladder as well as raise children, it was my problem. Recently divorced I had returned to the UK after over ten years travelling the world as an expatriate wife.  I had to not only find work but also arrange child care for my, then, two young children. In the 80s, only 24% of women returned to work within a year of childbirth. If a mother did contemplate going back to work, it was quite common to be asked, as I was at interview, how many children I had and what my child care arrangements were, as well as the contingency plans I had in place if – God forbid – the children were ever sick. I remember lying, even crossing my fingers on my lap, when confidently telling my future boss and the female HR manager the back up plans I had in place if  any of my children fell ill.

Climbing up the career ladder in – at that time – the very male orientated world of technology, I soon discovered I had alighted in an unequal world. Trouser suits for women were frowned upon and I  was required to wear my long hair up or tied back. A female executive advised that it would be better for my promotional chances if no personal photos were allowed to congregate on my desk, or even a display of femininity such as a vase of flowers. But nothing, nothing, I was warned should ever allude to the fact that I was a mother. This was of course, very different for my male colleagues. Having a photo on their desks, of their loving wife, and freckle-faced children was seen to be an asset, a sign of stability adding a softer side to their tough business exteriors.

I travelled regularly for work so my childcare arrangements needed to be of the flexible ‘live-in’ kind. Bunking the children in together to free up the ‘box room’ became essential for the series of nannies, mothers’ helps, and au pairs that saw them through from baby to school age and beyond.  There were of course some wonderful girls, real Mary Poppins who, however much time and love they had put into their ‘charges’ during the day,  ensured that when I came home from work, it was still me that the children would run to. There was the South African who was studying to be an accountant who, like Mary Poppins, taught my children that tidying up was fun.  But there was also the New Zealander who emailed me – when I was out of the country for ten days – saying she wasn’t getting paid enough and wanted an instant pay rise; the one who slammed the youngest’s finger in the car door because she lost her temper; and the one who was so homesick for Hull that the month’s telephone bill was nearly as much as the mortgage payments.

All in all, they were an ‘interesting’ lot, but one quality they all seemed to lack was the ability to cook. It was my fault in a way. I had worked out early that, to keep household expenses down to a minimum, one way was to choose girls that looked like they might be on a continual diet. So, I turned down the rather plump German girl who promised me good hot meals of meat and dumplings every night when I returned home from work – I worried what would happen if I said I wasn’t hungry – as well as the stick thin girl who polished of a plate of biscuits exclaiming she never had to worry about her weight.  But for the seven or so who did live with us, cooking was never their strong point.

Fish fingers, beans on toast, or chicken nuggets, seemed to be the zenith of their efforts at the ‘hob’. My Sundays therefore seemed to be spent filling the freezer with easily heatable dishes, those mainstays of the British diet, shepherd pies, bolognese, macaroni cheese etc.

But there were days when the contents of the store cupboard was all they had to provide supper. It was therefore stocked with a large variety of pasta as well as canned tuna, sweetcorn, tinned tomatoes and cheese that could be grated. So it was no surprise that I discovered recently that the comfort food favourite still of both my youngest daughters is Tuna Pasta Bake.

Building in the flavour

I confess I haven’t made this dish for quite a while so I had to consult daughters for a recipe and then tweak it a bit to make it acceptable to Man (who has never been a fan of tinned food). I was tempted to use fresh tuna, as I would for a Salad Nicoise, but felt that the tuna would be overcooked and dry if browned first and then baked in the oven. So I used the best tin of sustainable tuna in oil I could find – in this case – Fish4Ever Yellowfin Tuna in Organic Olive Oil. I have to say I find canned tuna in brine pretty tasteless, reminds me of diet food, so I recommend that whatever brand you buy, make sure it is canned in oil.

Tuna Pasta Bake – Feeds a hungry four, preparation time –  35mins

½ onion – chopped finely
1 clove garlic- smashed
chilli flakes
2 tbs olive oil
120g fresh egg penne
250g tinned tomatoes +herbs
1 tbs Patum Peperium or 3-4 chopped anchovies in oil
240g  or 2 tins of tuna in olive oil (see above)
1 tsp of capers
115g  baby leaf spinach
200g  cherry tomatoes
50g pecorino, grated


Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF. Peel and finely chop the onion and garlic. Place a frying pan over a medium to high heat. Cook the tuna chunks turning regularly for 3 -4 mins until golden brown. Remove from pan. Add oil, onion, garlic and sauté for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn the heat to high and add the chopped tomatoes. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. When done stir in Patum Pepperium until it has dissolved.

Meanwhile, bring a large pan of water to the boil. Once a rolling boil is achieved, add a pinch of salt and then tip in the pasta. Cook for about a minute less than the packet instructs it should taste as nearly ready.

Add the tuna, cherry tomatoes, and baby spinach to the sauce and fold in carefully (you don’t want to break the fish up too much). Season to taste. Drain the pasta when ready and toss it into the sauce. Coat well, then transfer to an ovenproof baking dish (roughly 25cm x 30cm).

Coarsely grate over the cheese. And grind over a light covering of black pepper. Sprinkle with a bit of olive oil, then place in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden and bubbling. Leave to cool down for 5 minutes before serving with a green, spicy salad.

Singing and Sizzling

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