tuna noodle casserole, freshened up
Tuna noodle casserole from a box was a staple in my house as a kid. I daresay I liked it then, but as an adult it’s rare that I even think of the stuff. But when I saw a recipe in Bon Appetit for a re-invented homemade version at this time last year, I tore it out right away and planned to make it. Surely even this humblest of casseroles deserves a second chance, right? I mean, you’ve gotta admit that creamy sauce + noodles + anything, baked until bubbly, has potential. Anyways, after I resolved to make the stuff I promptly lost the page and forgot about it for a year, but when I found the recipe yesterday I knew we would have it for dinner. It is time, my friends, to revisit tuna noodle casserole, sans box.
This turned out to be another seriously nostalgic meal. The flavors are pretty similar to what I remember of the boxed stuff, but fresher and more developed, and you can’t deny that this is better for you, and more fun to prepare and eat. In adapting this recipe, I wanted to use as many fresh ingredients as possible (the leeks of course, along with fresh dill and fresh celery rather than their dried equivalents), and I wanted to make it creamy while skipping the whole milk and half and half called for in the original recipe. We used skim milk and found that thickening with a roux and adding some gruyere made it perfectly creamy. A little lemon juice brightens it up, and the potato chips give it a really nice crunchy top (although you could substitute a little toasted panko if you’d rather skip the chips).
If you wanted to amp up the green quotient a little bit, you could fold in some frozen peas when you mix in the dill and cheese and let them bake up in the oven (I think some families eat their tuna casserole with peas anyway). All in all it was a tasty meal, and the next time I crave tuna casserole, I will look no further than this recipe.
If you want to make this casserole in advance, you could complete it to the point of combining the leek sauce, noodles, cheese, dill, tuna, and pasta water, and then transfer it to the baking dish (or leave it in the skillet) and allow it to cool. Then cover it, refrigerate it for up to a day, and remove it when you’re ready to bake– just give it an extra ten minutes in the oven before adding the chip topping.
Another thing to note is that while tradition might call for cooking this up in a baking dish, you could also minimize your dishes by doing the whole thing in a skillet– just make the leek sauce in a large ovenproof pan and then you can add the noodles, etc. to the sauce when they’re ready and bake the whole thing as is. Of course, if you need to transport the dish somewhere or if you want a nicer table presentation, the baking dish might be the way to go– instructions for both are included below. Enjoy!
Tuna Noodle Casserole Redux
Adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2010
1/4 cup unsalted butter (4 T), plus extra for greasing dish
2 cups thinly sliced leeks (from one large or two medium leeks)
1 rib celery, finely chopped
salt and pepper
1/4 cup flour
2 cups milk
juice of half a lemon
8 oz wide egg noodles
1/2 cup grated gruyere cheese
1-2 T chopped fresh dill (to taste)
6-10 oz canned albacore (1 large can or two small), flaked up with a fork
1 2-oz bag potato chips, crushed, or 1 cup panko crumbs toasted in a pan with 1 T butter
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. If you want to serve it in a casserole dish, lightly grease a square baking pan; if you’re preparing the dish from start to finish in an ovenproof skillet, you can skip that step. Set a large pot of water over high heat, and when it boils cook the egg noodles according to package instructions. Reserve a cup of the pasta water and drain the noodles.
While the water boils and the noodles cook, work on the sauce. Melt the half stick of butter in a large skillet (ovenproof, if you’ll be baking it in the same pan) over medium heat, then add leeks, celery, and a twist of salt and cook until the veg are very soft but not brown, about 8-10 minutes. Add the flour and stir for a minute, then gradually stir in the milk and get it simmering until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Add lemon juice and season with salt and pepper, adjusting to taste. Remove from the heat.
Combine the leek sauce and the drained noodles in the pan and stir to mix. Add the gruyere and the chopped dill and stir it all together, then add the reserved pasta water little by little to loosen the sauce to a smooth, creamy texture. Stir in the tuna and then transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish, if using; otherwise, leave it in the ovenproof skillet. Cover it with foil and bake for 20 minutes, then remove the foil and top the casserole with the potato chips or panko and return to the oven for an additional 10 minutes, until brown and bubbly. Enjoy!