How to Make a Classic Tuna Casserole
My wife is experimenting with meals from her childhood. Two nights ago she prepared a childhood favorite, Chicken Baked in Cornbread. It was a hit. Last night she topped that meal with a Tuna Casserole with Dill.
I have to say I was a little skeptical when she said she was making a casserole that included potato chips. It took me back to the days when my mom would make them and they weren't very good. Typically overcooked, dry and tough to get down.
Not true with this recipe we adapted from Bonappetit.com. It was flavorful, moist, hard to stop eating and the potato chips were a perfect accompaniment that not only added texture but a blast from the past.
We made a few changes to the original recipe because my daughter's college friend was visiting and she is a pescatarian, someone who doesn't eat meat but does eat fish. So we substituted vegetarian stock for chicken stock.
Nothing out of the norm here. Egg noodles, mushrooms, leek, dill, all the ingredients you might find in a classic casserole. What you won't find is a can of Campbell's cream of anything soup. No, you're going to prepare your own cream sauce with the veggie stock, roux, cream, cheese and a few other ingredients.
Update - Someone asked me to expand on what I mean by egg noodles because they mean different things to people in different parts of the world. Sorry about that, I didn't realize it.
I think he is asking what is the difference between what I call egg noodles and pasta noodles. The answer is the amount of eggs used to make them. Many pasta recipes do not include eggs, but many do. The difference is egg noodles are made with more eggs than pasta noodles.
The most important ingredient in this dish in my opinion is the tuna. Back in the day when my mom made a tuna casserole, she'd open a couple of cans of Bumble Bee tuna but for this dish, they suggest "jarred oil-packed tuna."
I buy a jarred tuna imported from Italy from Tonnino. It's more expensive than canned tuna packed in water and not something I would use to make tuna fish salad but it's extremely tasty. I use it all the time for my penne with tuna, artichoke hearts and olives.
We chose to use button mushrooms because that's what we had in the refrigerator but do experiment with other types to make it your own recipe. I would like to try Hen of the Woods or Lion's Mane mushrooms next time to see how it changes the flavor profile.
What I learned from this recipe that I did not know is to under cook the egg noodles. In fact, you barely cook them at all because they will continue cooking while in the oven baking in the sauce. If you cook the egg noodles to al dente or more, they'll end up mushy after the baking process.
A 4 Step Process
At first glance, this dish seems to have a lot of moving parts, in that there are many steps. However, simplified it is really a 4-step process with three basic components that come together in a fourth and final step bringing all the ingredients together. If you approach it with that in mind, the undertaking doesn’t seem quite so daunting.
The three action items are: cooking the noodles, sauteing the vegetables, and preparing the cream sauce. Cooking the noodles is basic with just boiling the water and then dropping the noodles in.
They key here is to time the cooking so they come out a little under cooked, since they will continue to cook in the casserole. As long as you use a timer, you can set it and forget it while turning your attention to other things, like sauteing the veggies.
As with any recipe, if you prep the vegetables before putting a pan on the stove, everything goes a lot more smoothly. The vegetables take a total of 15 minutes; the first ingredients in the pan cook for about 8 minutes, so during that time you can start the cream sauce, since the first step in that process is only a couple of minutes. Again, if you have all your ingredients prepped and ready to go, the multitasking is a no brainer.
So my wife, who likes to be organized, approached this in the following sequence: prepping all ingredients, preheating the oven, boiling the pasta water, dropping in the noodles and setting the timer for 2 minutes, heating the saute pan and adding the butter, draining the noodles, getting the onion and leek saute underway (8 mins total), starting the roux, and then working back and forth between the veggie saute and the sauce.
It makes for a more efficient process time wise, and when you have hungry people standing around, that’s a good thing!
When the veggies are cooked and the sauce in finished, it all gets folded together with the noodles and tuna, spread in a casserole dish, and topped with “planted” potato chips. By that I mean, you stick the chips into the casserole as if you are planting them.
This keeps them crispy so you get that crunch when you eat it. Super tasty and sure to win over the skeptics.
Tuna Casserole with Dill
- 13x9 inch baking dish
- 12 ounces egg noodles
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 stick butter equals 8 ounces
- 1 leak white and pale green parts only, cleaned, finely chopped
- 1 large yellow onion finely chopped
- 10 ounces mushrooms your choice
- ¼ cup white wine and some more to enjoy while cooking
- 2 teaspoons thyme finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- ¼ cup all purpose flour
- 2½ cups vegetarian stock chicken stock if you like
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 6 ounces white cheddar cheese grated
- 2 teaspoons hot sauce optional
- 12 ounces oil-packed tuna drained and shredded by hand
- 2 cups potato chips
- zest of ¼ lemon
- 2 tablespoons chives finely chopped
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Cook the Pasta
- Bring a large pot of water to boil, add salt and cook the egg noodles for just a couple of minutes.
- Drain the pasta immediately and let it cool .
Saute the Vegetables
- Heat a large fry pan over medium high heat. When hot, melt 4 tablespoons of butter.
- Add the leek and onion and saute for 8 minutes until soft.
- Add the mushrooms and raise the heat to medium-high. Mushrooms contain a lot of water and it will release when cooking. Stir and continue cooking for 5 minutes or until all the mushroom liquid has evaporated.
- Add the wine and cook until it is cooked off, about 2 minutes.
- Add the Worcestershire sauce and fresh thyme.
Make the Cream Sauce
- Heat a medium sized saucepan over medium-low heat. When hot, add 4 tablespoons butter and melt. Now to make the roux, whish in the flour and cook until the flour butter mixture turns golden. You want it to be smooth. Takes about 2 minutes.
- Whisk in the veggie stock, whisking constantly and bring to a boil.
- Reduce the heat to medium and add the cheddar, cream and hot sauce if you are using. Stir until the cheese is melted.
- Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
Combine the Ingredients
- In a large bowl, "fold" the cream mixture into the mushroom mixture, noodles and then fold in the tuna. Taste and adjust seasoing with salt and pepper.
Finish the Casserole
- With the remaining tablespoon of butter, grease the baking dish.
- Spoon the tuna mixture to the baking dish.
- Place the casserole in the pre-heated oven and bake for 15 - 20 minutes until the chips lightly brown and the edges start to bubble.
- When the casserole is done, remove and top with lemon zest.
- Let the casserole sit for 6 minutes. Top with dill and chives.
- Serve and watch your family and friend devour.