I did not grow up having to eat tuna noodle casserole, which may be one reason I actually like it.
One of the legion of visceral TNC haters, my younger brother, Chris, recently told me, “I figure it was one of those meals that (Mom) forced us to eat, like liver and onions. I don’t remember that she made it or not.”
Quite possibly, Chris has issues. My two sisters and I are pretty sure Mom did not make TNC, at least not often, though she did make her share of possibly love-it-or-hate-it dishes including creamed chipped beef on toast and a concoction given to her by our scottish ranch-house neighbors called “mince and tatties,” which is an exotic way to say hamburger gravy on mashed potatoes.
I have no idea where I first tasted TNC, and it’s not something I make or eat often, but what’s not to like about the rich combination of noodles and cheesy sauce, with a crunchy topping, and “tuna fish,” as I grew up calling it (never just “tuna”).
Canned tuna has never bothered me, and I’ve only grown to appreciate its convenience and nutrition as I’ve gotten older (especially after I was turned on to the high-end Spanish stuff).
Early in my days in Pittsburgh, when I was living up on Mount Washington, I had a tuna-fish epiphany at La Tavola Italiana restaurant, where I saw it served, with cold tomato sauce, atop hot pasta, a Sicilian summer trick. I was skeptical, but I loved it, and now, I make some variation of that – sometimes with fresh cherry tomatoes, or no tomatoes – at least once a week, using good-quality tuna in packed in olive oil. Tuna and noodles sans casserole.
If the name “tuna noodle casserole” is off-putting, you could call it “tuna stroganoff,” one of the recipes I recently found in the spiral-bound “The Best from the Blade Cookbooks: 1950-1960,” a compilation published by the PG’s sister newspaper in Toledo, Ohio. “Serve on toast, fluffy rice or buttered noodles and sprinkle with parsley and chives,” directed the recipe’s contributor, a Mrs. Fred Stauber, who includes 1/3 cup of sherry for good measure.
It’s a simple recipe, evoking perhaps simpler times. Especially today when many of us can eat just about anything we can imagine whenever we want, I like the dish’s thrift and humility, which makes it a very appropriate no-meat one to make for Lent.
It’s even simpler to not make it and instead seek it out at one of the church fish fries that serve during Lent. St. Joan of Arc in South Park, Pa., will serve it as a special, with salad, says pavilion manager Mona Musser. She makes it with lots of peas, celery, mushrooms and white albacore tuna, and it must be good, because people already were calling the church about it last week. They like it for the same reason she does: “It’s home.”
St. Maximilian Kolbe in West Homestead, Pa., also serves TNC during Lent, in various ways, sometimes with crumbled potato chips (classic!) on top and sometimes without peas (“People aren’t wild about peas,” quips the Rev. Daniel Sweeney, who is a fan of this “extra-special fish dish.”)
But of course, TNC isn’t just for Lent. It’s part of the Lenten catering menu at Eadie’s Kitchen & Market, but the dish also is a Friday lunch staple and has been for 25 years. Owner Maggie Joyce said she tried to take it off the menu once, but, “It was awful. People were calling me and yelling at me!”
Old people? No, she says with a laugh. While her now-grown children would not eat the stuff, “You’d be surprised how many young people eat tuna noodle casserole in this building.”
If you want to make TNC yourself, you can find recipes everywhere, including on the website of StarKist. Classic tuna noodle casserole remains a top-searched recipe at StarKist.com, says spokeswoman Michelle Faist, but she likes to point out other modern tuna twists, including Southwest style tuna casserole, tuna spinach and artichoke casserole and even StarKist’s sloppy Charlie “(the new sloppy Joe).”
While I have a soft spot for old-school versions of TNC, below is a modern one that loses the canned mushroom soup and adds lots of vegetables to whole-wheat pasta. It’s not only good, but also good for you.
New tuna noodle casserole
Prep time: 25 minutes
Cook time: 55 minutes
Ellie Krieger writes that this “retro remake” will transport you back to the “warm fuzzy place” of your childhood, “but it tastes better than you remembered because it is better.”
From “So Easy: Luscious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Week” by Ellie Krieger (Wiley, $19.99, 288 pages)
3/4 pound whole-wheat fettuccine
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 large stalk celery, finely diced
10 ounces white mushrooms, stemmed and chopped
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups low-fat (1 percent) milk
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth or vegetable broth
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Four 6-ounce cans chunk light tuna in water, drained
One 10-ounce box frozen chopped broccoli, thawed
One 10-ounce box frozen peas, thawed
1/3 cup plain bread crumbs
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Break the fettuccine into thirds, and cook until tender but firm, a minute or 2 less than the package directions call for. Drain.
Heat the oil in a large deep skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until softened, 5 minutes. Add the celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until just tender, 6 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until they release their water, about 5 minutes more.
Sprinkle the flour over the mushroom mixture and stir immediately to incorporate. Add the milk and broth and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has thickened, about 8 minutes.
Add the salt and pepper, cooked fettuccine, tuna, broccoli, and peas, and toss to incorporate.
Pour mixture into a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish.
In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle them over the casserole and bake until bubbly, about 25 minutes.
Not your mom’s tuna casserole
Prep time: 25 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour 10 minutes
Gretchen McKay of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette despised tuna casserole as a child.
However, she found this recipe from “Mr. and Mrs. Sunday’s Suppers: More than 100 Delicious, Homemade Recipes to Bring Your Family Together” by Lorraine Wallace (Houghton Mifflin, $24.99, 240 pages) .
She prepared it and, while her family loved it, she is still not convinced. Maybe with chicken, she says.
Nonstick cooking spray
One 12-ounce bag egg noodles
One 16-ounce can oil-packed tuna (I used tuna packed in water)
One 10-ounce package frozen peas, thawed and drained
3 cups shredded cheddar cheese, divided
1 tablespoon butter
1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 celery stalk, finely diced (about 1/2 cup)
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
8 ounces baby bella mushrooms, quartered
1 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups chicken broth, homemade or canned
2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and position oven rack in the middle position.
Coat a 13-by-9-inch casserole dish with cooking spray. (I used 2 smaller casserole dishes.)
Cook the noodles in salted water until al dente according to package directions. Drain and rinse the noodles in cold water to stop them from cooking. Once cooled, pour the noodles into a large bowl and add tuna, peas and 2 cups of the cheese. Toss to combine.
In large skillet over medium-high heat, melt butter. Add onion and celery and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, add thyme and continue to cook until onion and celery are translucent, about 2 more minutes.
Add mushrooms, reduce heat to medium and cook vegetables until tender and the mushrooms’ juices have evaporated, about 5 minutes longer.
Add Worcestershire sauce and stir it in, then sprinkle the flour over the entire skillet. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until flour is incorporated into vegetables, with no lumps. Add broth and stir to scrape up any brown bits.
Slowly pour in the milk, stirring constantly to combine. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the mixture has thickened and is reduced by 1/2 cup, about 8 minutes.
Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Pour the vegetable sauce over the tuna-noodle mixture in the bowl and mix to combine. Immediately pour into the prepared casserole dish(es).
In bowl, toss panko with remaining cheese. Stir in olive oil. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the casserole. Bake, uncovered, until the casserole is bubbly and top is golden, 35 to 40 minutes.
Serve piping hot.