I am a fan of the “meal in one pot” brigade for busy weeknights, and judging by the number of cookbooks dedicated to casserole cooking, I’m in good company. In a recent call out to friends asking them what they’d like to see on my blog, I got a few requests for “one dish meals” that are easy to make, please everyone, and taste good. With that thought in mind, I got to thinking about what kind of casserole would be just right for piano class night. I had a package of fresh egg fettucine that I picked up at my local Italian bakery, and wanted to add a good protein to round out the supper routine. Nearing the lunch hour by the time I got myself in gear for supper planning, I realized it was too late to defrost something from the freezer. Hmm…my last two cans of fancy albacore tuna were staring me in the face, but I hesitated. Not because I don’t love tuna noodle casserole (in fact, it’s one of my favourite dishes of all time), but because my daughter positively loathes tuna.
My daughter is not a fussy eater, but there are just a few ingredients that send her over the edge. Tuna is one of them. The scent wafting from a recently opened can reminds her of the cat food she serves her pet Miko at her dad’s place. Ew, mom, that’s gross. I don’t want to eat that. Alright, I say, and carry on with my plan, or rather lack thereof, given that I waited until lunchtime to figure out what to make for supper. How would I convert this into something she would eat?
Truth be told, I have to confess something to you. Back in the 90’s (that now sounds as retro to me as the expression “back in the 70’s”…wow, where does the time go?), I used to rely on the pre-packaged boxes of Hamburger Helper to get me through weeknight suppers, when I used to commute 3 to 4 hours a day to get to work. Insane work schedules and long drives led to less than glamorous meal planning with multiple shortcuts to “help” me through the Monday to Friday grind, and honestly, I was young then and not as concerned with my health, or the impact of consuming a larger than ideal amount of preservatives on my system. And you know what? Compared to the fast food outlet, these meals tasted pretty good back then. My favourite casserole by far was Tuna Helper, something I couldn’t purchase often because I was the only one who liked it, so the others had to be force fed this stuff.
I’ve always had a penchant for cream based sauces, and whether tuna or chicken was involved, it didn’t matter to me. Buttery egg noodles and a white sauce were always a favourite of mine. Just thinking about it got me craving the old Tuna Helper casserole from back in the day. But my tastes, my lifestyle and, more importantly, my health have all changed a lot in the last two decades. I wanted to bring back that lovely casserole, but give it a good, homemade taste and hopefully get my daughter’s buy in. If only reluctantly, fingers crossed.
I was inspired by Laura Washburn’s Tuna Noodle Casserole, from her book Home-Cooked Comforts. This book is loaded with amazingly simple, tasty casserole ideas, and every time I open it, I wonder why I’m not making every single dish. Laura talks about how in her heyday this beauty was made with a can of cream of mushroom soup, which today is considered only a notch up from the Tuna Helper box I used. Today, we sauce from scratch, to avoid all of those preservatives and excess sodium found in boxed mixes and canned soups. And, while you can’t argue that opening a can is easier than making a bechamel sauce from scratch, it really isn’t all that much harder to melt a bit of butter with some flour, add some milk and whip up a base sauce for your casserole. The difference in taste is more than enough reason to get me cooking homemade, and is so much healthier, in my opinion.
Laura’s casserole stays true to the classic tuna noodle dish, only all ingredients are fresh. Fresh mushrooms, fresh pasta, and a sauce made from scratch. A simple concept, but a brilliant one nonetheless. I looked forward to seeing how different this would taste, but first, I had an 8 year old’s biases to consider in designing my retro revamp. For one thing, I decided to skip the mushrooms. While I love them, they’re probably the second thing my daughter likes the least, after tuna. To try to hit a home run with two dislikes was a challenge I wasn’t prepared to face, so I substituted them with an onion instead. A vegetable for a vegetable is a fair sub in my books. My next big change was to add some cheese to my sauce. I debated this one (quietly, in my head) before forging ahead, mainly because I tend to agree with the classic Italian tenet of never combining fish with cheese. In principle, I agree with that concept, preferring instead to pair my fish with lemon or garlic, but there is one exception I make: Cod au Gratin. My mom makes this Canadian classic, and it’s so good that I’m willing to look the other way. And now I have one more exception to add to this – Tuna’s New Story, as named by my daughter.
This casserole is a weeknight winner. The fresh pasta cooks up in 3 minutes, the white sauce is easy to whip up, the cheese adds that right savoury note and (almost) makes you forget there’s tuna in there, and the parsley freshens the whole thing up in a way you couldn’t imagine. So good that I don’t ever want to make tuna noodle casserole without fresh parsley ever again. You can add freshly cut mushrooms if you love them, but the diced onion added the right flavour notes and I’m not sure I would omit it going forward. If you want to stay true to the fresh homemade concept, top your casserole with fresh breadcrumbs. I would have done so, but I was alas, fresh out, so I substituted butter cracker and saltine crumbs mixed with a bit of freshly grated cheese, and I was pleased with the truly retro vibe it gave my casserole. Easy, simple, good, but most of all, appealing even to non tuna lovers. Now that’s a success in my books. As my daughter said so eloquently, tuna needs a new story, and this is it mom! Hence its name, which is also a winner in my books. A side green salad, some fresh dinner rolls and soft salty butter, and a crisp sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio wouldn’t be out of place at the supper table. Just a thought for your new favourite casserole meal.
This is the tuna noodle casserole, reinvented with fresh ingredients. Use any type of fresh pasta you wish. Feel free to substitute fresh mushrooms for the onion. You can omit the cheese if you wish, or use a different kind. You can also substitute fresh bread crumbs for the cracker crumbs. Normally, I would use bread crumbs, but I was fresh out, so I resorted to crushing some Ritz and saltines, and it gave my casserole a retro vibe I was rather pleased with!
Adapted from Laura Washburn's Home Cooked Comforts.
- 1/4 cup butter, plus more for greasing the casserole
- 3 scallions (green onions), thinly sliced
- 1 celery rib, finely chopped
- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 4 oz finely grated Swiss cheese
- 24 crackers, crushed, or enough to fill up one cup of crumbs (I used a combination of Ritz and Premium Plus saltines)
- 1/2 tsp ground paprika
- 1/3 cup all purpose flour
- 2 1/2 cups milk
- 1 tsp ground mustard powder
- 2 6 oz cans of tuna, drained and flaked (I used albacore packed in water)
- 1 pound fresh egg pasta (I used fettucine)
- a large handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 350F. Get a large pot of water boiling to cook the pasta. Butter a large casserole dish and set aside.
- Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat, and add the scallions, celery, onion and salt. Cook for 5 minutes until the vegetables have softened but not browned.
- Mix about a quarter cup of the grated Swiss cheese with the cup of cracker crumbs, and set aside.
- Add the paprika to the vegetables and then the flour and mix well. Add the milk slowly, while whisking the sauce, until everything is well blended and no clumps of flour remain. Simmer until the sauce thickens. Stir in the mustard and remove the sauce from the heat to cool slightly. Add the flaked tuna and stir well to combine.
- Cook the pasta for 2 to 3 minutes. It will continue to cook in the oven, so it's ok if it's a bit undercooked. Reserve a cup of pasta water before draining the pasta and once drained, place it in the greased casserole dish. Add half a cup (and up to a cup) of the pasta water to your sauce to thin it out. It will look soupy, but that's ok because the noodles will absorb most of it while baking in the oven.
- Pour the sauce over the pasta. Add the remaining Swiss cheese and parsley, and toss to blend. Season with some freshly ground black pepper (and a bit more salt, if you think it's needed).
- Cover the casserole with the cracker crumb cheese mixture, and bake in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let sit for a few minutes before serving.