Exploring Tuna Casserole: Humorous History & Seriously Good Recipes
Innovation is Our Middle Name
The Pacific Northwest, that little corner of the U.S. tucked between California (to the south) and British Columbia (to the north), is the birthplace of inventions and advancements that have changed the world—Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft, and... tuna casserole?
Yes, while I was researching this topic, I stumbled upon the little-known fact that the combination of three unlikely ingredients (tuna, mushroom soup, and noodles) was first thought of here in Washington State, but like Starbucks coffee (also from Washington), it has received mixed reviews.
If, for instance, a dish composed of tuna fish, canned mushroom soup, and corn flakes is in any danger of becoming a dish of the region, I prefer to ignore it. If by doing so I can give it ever so gentle a nudge toward oblivion, that is good.”— Helen Evans Brown, author of West Coast Cook Book (1952)
It's Older Than You Think
You might assume that the tuna casserole was a post-World War II invention of middle America, but you would be wrong. The first published recipe for 'Noodles and Tuna Fish en Casserole' was penned by Mrs. W.F.S. of Kennewick, Washington and printed in a 1930 issue of Sunset Magazine. Mrs. W.F.S. made a white sauce for her creation, but beginning in 1934 cooks simplified the recipe by substituting that new product from the Campbell Soup Company—cream of mushroom soup.
And Then We Came Full Circle
And then, Ellen Brown (no relation to Helen Evans Brown) entered the scene. She is the founding food editor of USA Today and a prolific cookbook author. In 2012 she published “Mac and Cheese: 80 Classic & Creative Versions of the Ultimate Comfort Food.” According to NPR (National Public Radio), right between the recipes for Sherried Mac and Cheese and Mayan Chipotle Chicken Mac is a recipe for (yes, you guessed it) tuna noodle casserole.
She chose to “upgrade” the classic by ditching the cream of mushroom soup substituting in its place a “white sauce made from scratch.” Her recipe and a few other variations of the original is given below.
Ellen Brown's Tuna Mac and Cheese
- 1/2 pound curly egg noodles
- 1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms
- 1/2 cup seafood stock or chicken stock, heated to boiling
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, divided
- 1 small onion, diced
- 2 celery ribs, diced
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 cups whole milk, warmed
- 2 tablespoons dry sherry
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme (substitute a pinch dried)
- 2 ounces whole-milk mozzarella cheese, grated
- 2 (5-ounce) cans chunk tuna packed in water, drained and broken into chunks
- 3/4 cup frozen peas, thawed (optional)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 (1.5-ounce) bag potato chips, crushed
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a 13 x 9-inch baking pan.
- Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook the noodles until they are just beginning to soften to the al dente stage. Drain the noodles, run them under cold water, and return them to the pot.
- Soak the mushrooms in the boiling-hot stock for 10 minutes, pushing them down into the liquid with the back of a spoon. Drain the mushrooms, reserving the stock. Chop the mushrooms, and set aside. Strain the stock through a sieve lined with a paper coffee filter or paper towel, and set aside.
- Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and celery, and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the vegetables soften. Scrape the vegetables into the pot with the noodles.
- Return the saucepan to the stove, and melt the remaining butter over medium-low heat. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute, or until the mixture turns slightly beige, is bubbly, and appears to have grown in volume.
- Increase the heat to medium, and slowly whisk in the warm milk, reserved stock, sherry, and thyme. Bring to a boil, whisking frequently. Stir in the mushrooms, reduce the heat to low, and simmer the sauce for 2 minutes, or until thickened. Add the cheese to the sauce by 1/2-cup measures, stirring until the cheese melts before making another addition.
- Pour the sauce over the noodles, and stir well. Gently fold in the tuna and peas, if using. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and transfer the mixture to the prepared pan. Sprinkle crushed potato chips over the top of the dish.
- Bake the casserole for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the crumbs on the top are a deep brown. Allow to sit for 5 minutes, then serve.
Lighter Tuna Casserole
Fresh mushrooms, fresh vegetables, and goodbye cream of clump soup. This version of tuna casserole is lighter, fresher, more colorful and healthier. You know you want this.
Grown Up Tuna Noodle Casserole
The cream of mushroom soup is still there, but the flavors in this dish are enhanced with the addition of fresh mushrooms, sour cream, cream cheese, grated Colby cheese, and a topping of crispy fried onions. With all that cheesy creamy goodness, how can you go wrong?
Lemon Tuna Mornay
Isn't it odd that an air of sophistication seems to enshroud any dish given a French-sounding name?
This recipe was adapted from an article featured in Australian Women's Weekly.
- 1.5 cups macaroni pasta
- 2 ½ tablespoons butter
- 1/4 cup flour
- 2 1/2 cups skim milk, warmed
- 15 ounces canned tuna in spring water, drained, flaked
- 1 cup frozen peas
- 3 shallots, chopped finely
- 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 2 tsp finely grated lemon rind
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 cup coarsely grated cheddar cheese
- 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons butter, chopped finely, extra
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease six 1½-cup (375 ml) ovenproof dishes.
- Cook pasta in large saucepan of boiling water until tender, drain.
- Meanwhile, melt butter in medium saucepan; add flour, cook, stirring, 1 minute. Gradually stir in milk, cook, stirring, until sauce boils and thickens. Combine sauce, tuna, peas, shallot, parsley, rind, juice and pasta in large bowl.
- Spoon mixture evenly into dishes, sprinkle with combined cheese and breadcrumbs, dollop with extra butter. Bake about 30 minutes or until browned lightly. Stand 5 minutes before serving.
Tuna Rice Casserole
This tuna rice casserole starts with 4 cups of hot cooked rice. The author probably assumed white rice, but I think you could easily substitute 4 cups of brown rice. It has more flavor, more fiber, and is better for you.
This really is a one-pan dish. The pasta cooks in a shallow pan and then is drained of all but one cup of the water, stir in the sauce, then flaked tuna and your peas. Warm gently. Boom. Done.
Note that you must use creme fraiche, not sour cream. If you cannot locate creme fraiche at your grocers, here is a link for how to make your own.
Garden Zoodles Casserole
What (you might be wondering) are zoodles? The kitchen gadget of 2017 is the spiralizer; a nifty little hand-held machine that spiral-slices vegetables into long strands. This recipe uses zucchini, so the author of the casserole calls them "zoodles". This is great for anyone watching their carbs or who is gluten sensitive.
Tuna Casserole Stuffed Shells
Tuna casserole gets a serious upgrade with this version. Stuffed shells make a beautiful presentation, maybe even good enough for company.
© 2017 Linda Lum