From My Mother’s Kitchen: Updated Tuna Casserole
EVENT: Father’s Day
VENUE: Phoebe’s Parents’ Apt, Upper West Side
TYPE: Comforting, Nostalgic Dinner
MENU: Tuna Noodle Casserole with Cremini Mushrooms and Scallions; Baked Tomatoes with Thyme; Steamed Broccoli with Garlic and Lemon; Chocolate Chip Cookies
“Before he met me, your father’s favorite home-cooked dish was tuna casserole.” That’s pretty much how my mother sums up my dad’s childhood in the Midwest.
My dad grew up in Ohio. But I’m not sure this actually had too much impact on his mother’s cuisine. The supermarkets were the same on the East Coast, and even after moving to Connecticut, my grandmother sourced over half of every meal from a can. Sometimes around the Thanksgiving table, while eating my mother’s haricots verts with spiced nuts, my dad and his siblings would reminisce about my grandmother’s green beans, which emerged from the can, cooked, only to be boiled to the point of disintegration.
My aunts and uncles found creative ways of joining the clean plate club without bringing a bean to their lips. Most involved hiding the unwanted food in their underpants, then immediately discarding it in a garbage can or toilet far away from the kitchen. My grandmother must have wondered why the interior of my aunt’s bras and my uncle’s button-downs were often stained canned-bean green.
So it wasn’t against stiff competition that Tuna Casserole won my dad’s heart and became his favorite childhood dish. He would request it occasionally when I was growing up. And occasionally, (meaning, once) my mother would oblige.
We both found the concept, along with that of the twice-cooked green beans, horrifying.
But in deference to my dad, Mom stuck to the traditional Campbell’s soup can recipe and turned out the noodle dish of his dreams. But she drew the line at store bought fried onions out of the jar. Instead, she made herbed breadcrumbs from scratch, and topped the baking dish with a thin layer of gruyere. I remember the casserole being set down on the table, and I distinctly remember thinking to myself: “ew.”
When Father’s Day approached this year, my mom and I were at a loss. I had been living at home for a week or so at this point, and had already indulged my dad in his fill of pasta dinners. We talked about fish and chips, tacos, onion rings. Nothing was getting us excited. Then it came to her. “How about tuna casserole?” my mom suggested.
I gagged a little bit. But I remembered how Cara had looked to the past for her mom’s birthday (she made Chicken Parm, which her family ate while she was growing up), and I agreed to take on the challenge. Still, I drew a line at one can. Period.
My updated tuna casserole begins with a rich, but not too rich, béchamel sauce and is rounded out by mushrooms sautéed in white wine with a hint of soy sauce, and a handful of fresh herbs. The can of tuna seemed unavoidable, so I made sure to pick up a really nice Italian brand packed in olive oil.
Though I wasn’t quite looking forward to digging in, the end result was so, so good, I just might be bringing it back for my dad’s birthday. Perhaps with some green beans on the side.
From my kitchen, curbing my Midwestern judgments while kicking the can, to yours,
Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Tuna Noodle Casserole with Cremini Mushrooms and Scallions
Makes 4 servings
4 tablespoons butter
1 medium yellow onion, diced
8oz cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
4 scallions, white and green parts separated, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/4 cup white wine
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup whole milk
5oz tuna packed in olive oil*
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
8oz egg noodles
1 cup bread crumbs
1 tablespoon parsley (optional)
*When you open the can, push the lid down over the sink to drain out the oil. Then add tuna as outlined below.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
In a large cast iron pan or casserole dish, melt 1 tablespoon of butter over medium-low heat. Add the onions and cook until translucent, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms, the white parts of the scallions, and the soy sauce, and continue to cook until the mushrooms are tender, about 5 more minutes. Deglaze the pan with the wine and cook until all the liquid has nearly been absorbed by the vegetables, about 3 minutes. Turn the heat off and scrape the mushroom mixture into a bowl. Set aside.
Add the remaining butter to the pan and melt it over low heat. Whisk in the flour then stream in the broth and the milk 1 cup at a time. Whisk or stir with a wooden spoon until there are no lumps. Turn the heat back up to medium and simmer the sauce until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, stirring continuously, about 5 minutes.
In the meantime, cook the noodles according to package directions until al dente (about 5 minutes). Drain in a colander.
Off the heat, add the mushroom mixture, green parts of the scallions, tuna, lemon juice, and salt to the pan. Stir until combined. Gently fold in the pasta until fully distributed. Top with breadcrumbs and parsley and bake in the oven for 15 minutes, until bubbling. Turn the heat up to broil, and cook for another few minutes, until the breadcrumbs are nicely browned. Serve immediately.
NOTE: casserole can be made a few days in advance (up until the crumb topping step) and kept covered in the fridge.