Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tuna Casserole: NSFCT (Not Suitable For Cholesterol Tests!)

Technically, it's still winter even if it doesn't feel like it here in San Francisco today. But last week it was damp and rainy and I found myself craving comfort food. I'd been thinking about trying to make a homemade tuna casserole, from scratch, and what with it being Lent and all, it seemed liked a good time to give it a go.

I checked online for recipes and I came across plenty of the "add one can cream of mushroom soup"- variety. I have nothing against that kind of cooking. It has its place, especially in the American kitchen's history, but I wanted more of a challenge than the one presented by digging through my utensil drawer looking for the can opener. I also wanted a different flavor. I know purists will protest that I wasn't really craving "comfort food" then if I was looking to make something more involved. My attitude is that we take our comfort where we can find it. End of conversation.

I never found one complete recipe that I liked, but I did find two that had enough good stuff in them that I figured I could tweak them accordingly to suit my tastes. I'm not very good at following rules, anyway, which is why I'm not a very good baker. But more on that in a future post.

What follows is a mash-up of two recipes. One was found at and the other was at I did some mixing and matching and improvising of my own ingredients and the results were excellent. Of course a lot of what made the resulting dish taste so good was the creamy, cheesy sauce which is also, unfortunately, the same stuff that makes this casserole no friend of the cardiologist. Don't make this if you have any blood work scheduled in the next.... week? Month? It's pretty decadent. It's more "Lent: In Denial" than it is "Lenten Denial." But as long as you're not eating this way every day, a little indulgence is, in my humble opinion, OK.

A quick shout out to Lon's friend Sarah who inspired the use of the Panko crumbs.

Another goes to Lon for his Creole seasoning mix. The recipe that I nicked from called for Old Bay Seasoning in the casserole. I didn't have any on hand, so I used the mixture that Lon had made instead. It was perfect. If you make this you will have plenty of seasoning left over. I suggest using it in stews, gumbo, even scrambled eggs. It's a winner.

Lastly, a warning about the state your kitchen will be in afterward: The mash-up of these recipes resulted in the messing up of my entire kitchen. You will probably use a minimum of three pots and one pan before you even get the ingredients into the casserole dish. Fortunately you can use the time that it's in the oven to clean up.

Enjoy! Plan on making this on an evening when you have about an hour to devote to straight hands-on time in the kitchen. Just make sure that you have an hour, or two, to devote to doing cardio at the gym the next day.

Tuna Casserole
For the veggies...
2 TBS olive oil
1 bunch scallions, chopped, white parts only
2 stalks of celery, chopped
1/2 pound of fresh mushrooms, chopped (I used a mix of shiitake caps and white button. I saved the stems from the shiitakes and let them steep in the milk for the bechamel.)
2 cups frozen peas 
For the roux and bechamel...
2 TBS butter
2 TBS flour
2 cups milk (I used whole but I've made a bechamel with skim before and it has worked.)
1/2 cup grated Gruyere
1/2 cup grated Cheddar (As Martha Stewart would say, please try to use "best quality.")
1 cup sour cream 

1 TBS grated lemon zest
2 TBS fresh lemon juice (or more, or less, to taste)

For Lon's Creole Seasoning mix....
1/4 cup kosher salt
1 TBS cayenne pepper
2 TBS freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup garlic powder
2 TBS onion powder
2 TSP celery seed 

For the casserole...
6 oz egg noodles (I used the packaged No Yolks variety.)
2 cans of tuna, 6 oz each, drained and flaked with a fork.
1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1 TBS butter 

Butter for casserole dish

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare pot of water for egg noodles, according to package directions. Butter all sides of casserole dish. (I would use a vessel that can hold 2 to 4 quarts.) Set aside
2. When water is boiling, cook egg noodles within 1 or 2 minutes of package directions. 
3. Pour two cups of milk plus stems from shiitake mushrooms into a pot and begin heating over a low flame. Do not let this boil.
4. While noodles are cooking and milk is heating, heat olive oil in medium pan over medium heat. Add scallion and celery. Cook until celery is just tender, about four minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently. The mushrooms will begin to lose some of their liquid. When they seem soft, but not limp, add the frozen peas and stir until they're thawed but not completely cooked. Remember: This is all getting thrown into the oven. Remove pan from heat and set aside.
5. In a medium saucepan, preferably one with tall sides, melt the 2 TBS of butter over medium heat. Add flour and stir frequently. Cook til mixture bubbles and begins to brown, about 2 minutes. Begin adding the heated milk, half cup at a time, making sure the mushroom stems don't plop in. Whisk after each addition. When all milk is added, continue stirring until liquid becomes thick and starts to bubble like a cauldron. Remove from heat and stir in grated cheese until smooth. Add 2 TBS of Creole seasoning and the lemon zest. Add one cup of sour cream and blend in with sauce. Taste and add additional lemon juice and/ or more seasoning to your preference. 
6. Add mushrooms, scallions, celery and peas to cheesy sauce. Stir until all the veggies are well-coated and mixed. Set aside. 
7. Open and drain two cans of tuna fish and, in a bowl, flake apart with a fork. Add tuna to cheesy sauce. Mix well.
8. Pour drained egg noodles into casserole dish. Toss to pick up some of the butter that's coating the sides of the vessel. Pour cheesy sauce, tuna, and veggie mix into casserole and toss well with noodles until everything is evenly coated with sauce. 
9. Melt butter in sauce pan and stir in Panko breadcrumbs to coat. This will help them form a nice crunchy brown topping. Distribute breadcrumbs evenly over top of casserole.
10. Place casserole on rack in middle of oven and cook until breadcrumbs start to brown and sauce is bubbly, about 25 minutes. Remove from oven, and let the dish stand for about five minutes before serving. 
11. Serve with lemon wedges and a crisp salad. The slight bitterness of endive would counter the richness of the casserole very well. 
12. Enjoy, but remember to consume responsibly - and don't blame me after your next blood test! 

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