Saturday, April 17, 2010

Reinvention of a Dusty American Meal

Old school American food is in my mind epitomized in the tuna noodle casserole. This dish has many variations but the version served to me at a very young age was largely based on a cream of mushroom soup foundation. A dish that was easy on the wallet but went a long way to feed a (picky) crowd. I don’t think I’ve eaten this American standard fare in over two decades, so while feeling a little nostalgic and a lot homey this week, I decided it was time to dust off this old recipe and bring it into the 21st century.

Bon Appetite magazine’s March 2010 issue took a stab at reinventing old school classic dishes, one of which being the tuna noodle casserole. Now I’m sure their original recipe is just fabulous, but being me, I’ve take some liberties in adjusting their recipe to my tastes. Here I’ve added things like sliced mushrooms, peas and some fun spices. The end result – utter love on a plate. The crushed potato chip topping (Bon Appetite’s idea, not mine, but brilliant!) gave the dish a fantastic, salty crunch while the leek and mushroom cream sauce wraps your food sole in a creamy, homey hug with bursts of freshness from the peas. This recipe has a long list of ingredient but most of them are things you are likely to have around and others not too hard to find.

Tuna Noodle Casserole
(Adapted from the BittenWord and Bon Appetite)

1/4 c (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
2 1/2 c thinly sliced leeks (white and pale green parts only; from about 2 large leeks; wash well)
10 large brown mushrooms, sliced (or more to your liking)
1/4 tsp celery seeds
Coarse kosher salt
1/4 c all purpose flour
2 1/4 c whole or 2% milk
1/2 c half and half
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice, from one large juicy lemon (if you like more lemon, add it)
1 tsp old bay seasoning
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp white pepper
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
1/4 c sour cream
8-12 oz wide egg noodles (I used whole wheat, but you use what you like. If you like your casserole more noodle-y, use the 12 oz, if not, go for 8oz.)
1 c coarsely grated Gruyère cheese (about 5 ounces)
1 c frozen peas (or more to your liking)
1 1/2 tbsp chopped fresh dill
2 7-oz cans albacore tuna (preferably packed in olive oil such as Cento or Ortiz), drained, broken into 1/2-inch chunks
2 cups coarsely crushed salted potato chips (about 2 ounces)

Butter 9x13inch baking dish. Melt 1/4 c unsalted butter in a large heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add leeks and celery seeds to saucepan; sprinkle lightly with coarse kosher salt.
Cover saucepan and cook until 4 minutes. Add the sliced mushrooms and stir.
Recover and cook another 4 minutes until leeks are tender but not brown, stirring often. Add flour; stir 1 minute. Gradually add milk and half and half.
Simmer until mixture thickens slightly, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Stir in lemon juice, mustard, cayenne, white pepper, old bay.
Add the Gruyere cheese, and dill. Taste. Season leek sauce to taste with coarse kosher salt and pepper. Remove sauce from heat.
Meanwhile, cook egg noodles for 5 minutes in large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally. Drain noodles, reserving 1 cup noodle cooking liquid. Transfer noodles to large bowl. Pour leek and mushroom sauce over noodles, add in peas and sour cream and stir to blend; add reserved noodle cooking liquid by tablespoons until mixture is moist and creamy (about 8 tablespoons, if too thick, continue adding cooking liquid or some more cream. You are looking for a somewhat thick sauce but one that evenly coats everything evenly so loosen it as needed.).
Fold in tuna. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
Transfer to prepared baking dish.
DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool slightly. Chill uncovered until cold, then cover with foil and keep refrigerated.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Bake noodle casserole, covered with foil, until heated through, about 20 minutes if freshly made or 30 minutes if chilled. Remove foil. Sprinkle crushed potato chips over and continue to bake, uncovered, until top is golden brown and filling bubbles, about 10 minutes longer. Serve hot.
Cooks Note: If you are not a tuna fan, you could very easily substitute in some shredded (or chunks of) baked or roasted chicken making it a kind of spin on another classic, Chicken Tetrazzini). Also, if leeks are not in season or hard to find, a mild onion like scallions or shallots would also work though these may take less time to cook so adjust accordingly.


  1. Love the idea of using leaks and fresh mushrooms. One question - does it work without that special ingredient - one can of Campbell's Mushroom soup?

  2. Seth, Phil, Jim and I were just reminiscing about what we used to eat in college. Tuna noodle casserole was right up there with 'Green Dinner' as a weekly treat. Yours looks way better than ours ever was.