Written by Tessa Barber
I’ve always liked tuna noodle casserole but the ookiness of canned mushroom soup usually prevents me from both making and enjoying it. I don’t like mushrooms except in very specific circumstances and sometimes not even then, and those circumstances do not include the mushroom floating around in cloudy goo.
Even mixed into the casserole, I still know that the soup is a component, an evil molecule in the casserole’s otherwise balanced atmosphere. Sometimes I’d make it and substitute Cream of Chicken soup, but that wasn’t much better. Why is the chicken pink and in disturbing ham-like bits in these types of soups?
So, without a satisfactory binding goo option, I eventually abandoned casserole making. Until this Thanksgiving I once again observed my stepmother making gravy and realized: there was not always cream soup in the world waiting to be dumped into one’s casserole. There is another way. It is called making a roux. (From InfoPlease: “a cooked mixture of butter or other fat and flour used to thicken sauces, soups, etc.”) Like realizing that your best friend is your true love, it was always there, I just never noticed it.
On over to Epicurious I went, with nothing more than the revelation of the roux and a need for comfort born of the ever-darker evenings of winter. Farfalle and Tuna Noodle? Too deconstructed. Lighter-Than-Mom’s? White wine, crushed potato chips, and cream cheese seem too far away from my ideal ‘role. Plain old Tuna Noodle Casserole? Just right. Well, I’d substitute peas for mushrooms, but otherwise it looked like a go.
As I made my shopping list, I began the process of modifying the recipe to my tastes and what I had on hand. Onion? No way. Too much can be a migraine trigger for me and the taste lingers in my mouth and pores for-ever. Leek it is! I had bread for breadcrumbs (sourdough), tuna, soy sauce, sherry, butter, olive oil, flour and salt.
At the store I picked up some petite peas and chose an English Coastal Cheddar for a strong flavor showing. I broke down and bought a pint of shiitake mushrooms, because they don’t bother me so much. It turns out there were no curly egg noodles available at Trader Joe’s. The local grocery had a wealth, but I perversely chose egg pappardelle just because I don’t feel like doing what the recipe tells me to do.
The cooking goes according to plan. The roux works out, even though I think I spent a little too long whisking during the “add broth and whisk till boiling” portion, and should have turned up the heat earlier. I use all the pappardelle, which is 2 oz. over the recommended limit, and this produces a wonderfully thick casserole that lifts in solid squares. Good for lunch transportation.
Regrets? A little more cheese and a little more salt. I would add some red pepper flakes next time. The best part is that there will be a next time. Now that I have the bones of a basic casserole at my disposal, it is mine for the playing. Maybe next time instead of tuna, mushrooms, and cheddar, I’ll do a ham, pea, and gorgonzola casserole. Maybe a beans and greens casserole. The world is my oyster (an ingredient, incidentally, you will never find in one of these hypothetical casseroles.)
Tuna Noodle Casserole
Prep time:30 minutes
Total time:1 hour
Makes 4 servings
- 1 medium onion or leek, finely chopped
- 4 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 10 oz. (about 4 cups) mushrooms, cleaned and sliced 1/4 inch thick—cremini or shiitake work well
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 1/4 cup Sherry
- 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
- 1 cup milk
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 6-oz. can tuna in olive oil, drained and broken into small flaky chunks
- 6 oz. (about 3 1/4 cups) dried egg noodles
- 1 cup coarse fresh bread crumbs or panko
- 4 oz. (1 cup) grated cheddar cheese
Heat the oven to 375 degrees F and grease a square baking dish.
Set a pot of salted water on to boil for the egg noodles.
In a large, heavy skillet, melt 1 1/2 tablespoons butter over medium-low heat and add the onion or leek with a pinch of salt. Cook the veg for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened.
Increase the heat to medium-high, add the mushrooms, and sauté for about 2 minutes until the mushrooms start to “wilt” and give off liquid.
Add the soy sauce and continue to sauté mushrooms, stirring, until the liquid in the pan is nearly evaporated. Add the Sherry and boil, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is evaporated once again.
Transfer the veg to a bowl and wipe out the skillet.
Melt the remaining 3 tablespoons butter in the skillet over medium-low heat and whisk in the flour to start the roux. Continue to whisk until the flour takes on a golden-brown color and “softens” (it will clump up and be a little stiff when you first whisk it in), about 3 minutes.
In a slow, steady trickle, add the broth, whisking continuously, until it is fully incorporated. Whisk in the milk, bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer, whisking occasionally, for about 5 minutes or until the sauce has thickened.
Stir in the vegetable mixture, lemon juice, salt, tuna, and half the cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Meanwhile, boil the egg noodles until they’re al dente, drain, and add to the vegetable/tuna sauce. Transfer the combined mixture to the baking dish. Top with the other half of the cheese and the bread crumbs, and bake until the casserole is bubbly, golden brown and delicious, about 20 to 30 minutes.