Monday, March 09, 2015

Upscale Your Tuna Casserole

If you grew up in the U.S. during the 1950s or 60s there is a good probability that you have had a classic casserole of the time, Tuna Noodle Casserole (also called Toodleooo in our home). It is a combination of noodles, condensed cream soup...mushroom or celery usually...frozen peas and canned tuna. Sometimes a bread crumb or crushed potato chip topping would be added if it was baked. 

It was easy to make from pantry items, quick to go together and mild enough in flavor that most kids would eat it without too much complaint. It had just enough veggies that nothing else needed to be served with it and there wasn't too much clean up either. If you were really in a hurry, you could mix it all up in the pot the pasta was cooked in and serve it right from there, for a very easy and quick meal, but one with lots of carbs, fat, salt and maybe even mercury from the tuna.

Today I made a somewhat upscale version. Mine had whole wheat noodles, a homemade Parmesan cheese b├ęchamel sauce, sauteed fresh mushrooms and onions, leftover grilled ahi tuna and a topping of grated aged focaccia bread. Leftover ahi tuna? Really? Well, the only reason there was some was because I had the flu that night and really didn't eat anything. Sweetie had cooked for both of us thinking I was O.K., so there was a full portion left over. 

The only holdover from the old days were the frozen peas and carrots. The new and improved casserole had a flavor profile very similar to the old casserole, but it was like a comparison between the grated Parmesan in the green cardboard container and real Parmesan Reggiano.

The upscale version was head and shoulders above the old stuff. The noodles had some chew to them, the tuna was tender and flavorful and didn't smell or taste 'fishy', more like sea fragranced. The mushrooms and onions were caramelized and their intense flavor really added to the dish. I had seasoned them with a touch of thyme, too. The sauce was delightful and rich and you could really taste the true Parmesan. The crumbs on top had crisped up nicely in the oven during the short bake, which added a much needed textural contrast. All in all it was worth the extra effort. Comfort food can still be super delicious and this way I could leave out almost all the salt, something much more difficult with canned products. What a way to use leftover tuna!

Upscale Tuna Noodle Casserole

1 package whole wheat noodles
7 oz. grilled ahi tuna, no more cooked than medium rare
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon butter, divided
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1/4 - 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese - use the real stuff
salt and pepper to taste
2 oz. fresh mushrooms, chopped
1/2 medium onion, peeled and chopped
1 cup frozen peas and carrots
3 tablespoons fresh breadcrumbs
olive oil

Cook whole wheat noodles as directed on the package until just al dente; drain.
While noodles are cooking, make sauce; in a medium saucepan melt 4 tablespoons of the butter. Stir in the flour and let cook 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the milk all at once, stirring, and cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens, about 3-5 minutes. Add the Parmesan cheese and stir until cheese melts. Place a piece of waxed paper or plastic wrap directly on the top of the hot sauce to keep it from making a skin on top. Set aside.

In a large skillet, melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Sautee the mushrooms and onions until onions are deep golden brown and mushrooms have given up much of their moisture. Add a sprinkle of dried thyme if desired. Cover and set aside.

Separate tuna into flakes, mix with cream sauce, onion mixture, and noodles. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed. Add the peas and carrots to the tuna mixture and turn mixture into an oiled baking dish. Sprinkle top with crumbs. If not using focaccia crumbs, drizzle top with a little olive oil.
Bake in preheated 3750 oven for 15 minutes to heat through and crisp the topping.  Serves 3-4.

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