~ My Creamy & Comforting Tuna Noodle Casserole ~
I was a foodie sprout back in the latter 1950's, developed a few taste buds during the '60's, and, by the time I left the nest in 1974, had blossomed into a gal with a limited, but, sophisticated palate. Limited because I wasn't exposed to a wide-variety of multi-cultural fare. Sophisticated because my mom, aside from an occasional can of cream of tomato soup and a rare TV dinner (which my brother and I had to beg for), never, ever, purchased stuff like cans of "cream of" anything, boxes of mac 'n cheese, 'burger helpers, or, any chef-r-dee products whatsoever.
The food we ate was simple, but, it was always made-from-scratch and it included a well-rounded Eastern European diet of fresh milk, eggs, butter, cheeses, in-season fruit, meat, cured and smoked meats, poultry, some fish and seafood, potatoes, grains, a small variety of vegetables, pickled vegetables and all sorts of great bread. For the most part, I liked everything. This having been revealed, it should come as no surprise when I report: my mom never made a 1950's era tuna noodle casserole. The can of tuna in her pantry was solely reserved for tuna salad.
Decades passed. Then, in 2006, when Joe's mom moved to Happy Valley, the day came when I was asked to make a tuna-noodle casserole. I was happy to accommodate, but, I wasn't starting in the cream-of-soup aisle of my grocery store. I set out to come up with a creamy and comforting casserole, for her, but, it had to be one that Joe and I would enjoy too -- a rich, creamy, cheesy casserole topped with crispy, buttery bread crumbs. That said, I took into consideration it should be in keeping with the concept of this iconic, retro casserole.
Tuna noodle casserole: a creamy, comforting pantry meal that can quickly be mixed together on a bad weather day or if you are just too tired to cook -- or simply because your elderly mother-in-law loves it.
Note: The following recipe fills a 2-quart casserole (11" x 7" x 2"), and, if served with a nice salad and some crusty bread and butter, it will easily feed a family of six people. In the event you've got hungrier mouths to feed (teenagers), a bigger crowd, or want leftovers the next day, simply do the math, double the recipe, and, bake it in a much larger 4-quart casserole.
1 12 1/2-ounce can solid white tuna, packed in water, well-drained
8 ounces bow tie noodles (farfalle), cooked al dente and well-drained
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt, for seasoning water for pasta
4 tablespoons salted butter (1/2 stick)
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1/2-3/4 teaspoons white pepper
1/4 cup Wondra Quick-Mixing Flour for Sauce and Gravy
1/2 cup small-diced yellow or sweet onion
1/2 cup small-diced celery
1 1/2 cups frozen peas and diced carrots, unthawed
1 4 1/2-ounce jar sliced mushrooms, well-drained
2 cups heavy cream, half & half or whole milk, your choice
1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) grated cheese with creamy melting properties (Note: My three favorites are Provel, Velveeta or Gruyère, and, I'm using my #1 favorite, Provel. You can learn more about this cheese by reading my Cook's Note at the end of this post, and, if would like to buy some, you can purchase it at Viviano.)
no-stick cooking spray, for preparing casserole dish
For the topping:
2 tablespoons salted butter, melted
1/2 cup French-style breadcrumbs or panko
~Step 1. In a 4-quart saucepan bring 2 1/2 quarts of water to a boil and add the sea salt. Add the pasta and cook to a very toothy level of al dente, about 9-10 minutes, instead of the usual 11-12 minutes. Do not overcook -- the pasta is going to cook a second time in the oven. Transfer to a colander, drain, and rinse in cold water to halt the cooking process. Set aside to thoroughly drain of water, tossing it occasionally, about 10-15 minutes. While pasta is draining, place the tuna in a small colander to drain, and using your fingertips, break it into bite-sized pieces. Place the noodles and the tuna in a large bowl.
~Step 2. In the same 4-quart saucepan, melt the 4 tablespoons of butter over low heat then stir in the sea salt and white pepper. Add the diced celery and onion. Increase heat to medium and cook until onion begins to soften, about 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add the peas and carrots along with the sliced mushrooms and continue to cook until thawed, about 2 more minutes stirring constantly. Add the flour, and stirring constantly, cook for 1 more full minute.
~ Step 4. In a 1-cup measuring container, melt the butter in the microwave. Stir in the breadcrumbs, 2 tablespoons at a time, until you have added the full 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons), stirring well after each addition. Using your fingertips, sprinkle the topping evenly over the top of the casserole.
Bake on center rack of 350°, until golden on top and bubbling around sides, about 25 minutes.
Tuna casserole going into 350° oven to bake about 25 minutes:
Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef's knife; 4-quart saucepan; colander; large spoon; large rubber spatula; 1-cup measuring container; 11" x 7" x 2", 2-quart casserole
Cook's Note: Provel cheese was developed by the St. Louis firm Costa Grocery in the 1950's. Made in Wisconsin, it's a processed cheese made from provolone, Swiss and white cheddar and sold primarily in the St. Louis area.
My critique of Provel cheese: It's a white, slightly smoky and slightly salty tasting processed cheese, with a texture similar to the orange-colored Velveeta. The second you take a knife to it, you just know it's going to melt to a creamy state. It's famously used on St. Louis-style pizza, and, is a great addition to cheese soups and cheese sauces.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2016)