From My Mother’s Kitchen: Updated Tuna Casserole

Posted by on Monday Jul 19th, 2010 | Print

EVENT: Father’s Day
VENUE: Phoebe’s Parents’ Apt, Upper West Side
PARTY-SIZE: 3
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

**Recipe**

Tuna Noodle Casserole with Cremini Mushrooms and Scallions
Makes 4 servings

Ingredients
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.

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  • ToKissTheCook

    This sounds unbelievable. I did not grow up with tuna noodle casserole but something in my communal memory has always found it absurdly appealing. Also, how very Betty Draper.

    • http://www.biggirlssmallkitchen.com/ BGSK

      Ha. I was betty for halloween two years ago–if I had only thought to bring a casserole to the party!

  • http://www.alittleginger.com Maddie

    You guys are making me excited for the Mad Men season premiere! Also, tuna noodle casserole was prominently featured on last night’s episode of “The Next Food Network Star”…but your version looks much better than the contestant’s one.

    • http://www.biggirlssmallkitchen.com/ BGSK

      Thanks maddie! I totally should have thought to suggest this as a mad men menu–perhaps in next weeks newsletter!!

  • Frankie

    Whatever Mad Men menu you dream up had better have a lot of scotch to chase it down. Have we ever seen Don Draper with food in his mouth?

  • PuffDaddyJ

    Beyond the valley of yum. This is a recipe for the ages.

  • http://atlantalifelovefood.blogspot.com/ Lainey_Elizabeth

    Oh how I love this post! I think we have said before being from the south I love a casserole, and unfortunatly (for my hips) I do not have the aversion to them that you do! I bet this is great, and one little word to the wise you can also make it and freeze it (before any of the baking) for up to 6 months. I do this on Saturdays when I have some time, make up a cassserole, put it in a dish and freeze so that when I know I will be crunched for time I pull it out to defrost and bake for a quick dinner. Way to go Phoebe! I am sure you made your Dad very happy and all of us southern girls very proud!

  • TheInternetCookingPrincess

    I was an unbelievably picky eater as a kid – but I would eat ANYTHING with canned tuna – sometimes even plain. Long story short, I used up my canned tuna tolerance as a kid and haven’t been able to stomach it since. But this recipe might just call for a canned tuna revival because I’m down with anything combined with baked pasta. In fact, I think it’s pretty necessary that I have this for dinner tonight. Thanks Phoebes.

    • http://www.biggirlssmallkitchen.com/ BGSK

      Doooo it! It really just tastes like a delicious creamy pasta with a little bit of flecked fish–i feel like I had something similar using salmon when I was in italy. Totally feel you though about childhood tuna OD. I definitely went through a tuna sandwich phase that got be reeeally sick of the stuff.

      Thanks for commenting!!

  • http://otm-inthegalley.blogspot.com/ SeattleDee

    I love this post – sentimental comfort food with love for Father’s Day. Now I can admit to an unreasonable craving for Marcella Hazan’s recipe for Fettuccine with Tuna, Garlic and Cream Sauce. MH cooks the pasta, but not the sauce of tuna in oil, garlic, parsley, butter, cream and parmesan. Topped with toasted fresh bread crumbs and more parmesan it’s swoon worthy.

    Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, 1986

  • trese

    I skip the breadcrumbs and baking; it is just a creamy pasta dish then. I like it sooo much better than the casserole version.

  • Angela

    I love this section of your blog. My mother died this past year, and I have been cooking her old recipe’s as a way to re-connect with her. Its crazy how much I have missed her amazing cooking, but I have found the process to be really rewarding. I look forward to trying some of your family dishes:)