I had a few realizations over the holidays this year with family. There were the usual suspects, of course: travel mayhem, gifting stress, and family drama. But this year there was a new player on the block: bad casseroles. I'm not sure if it was just chance or if my mom and sisters were digging through old late 1980's cookbooks, but we had some very heavy, flavorless casseroles during the Christmas holiday. One such recipe was that infamous Tuna Noodle Casserole made with canned soup. I hadn't had it in years, and the whole time I was eating it, I couldn't help but think: there's got to be a better way!
Now don't get me wrong: canned soup has a time and a place. But it's usually so high in sodium that I try to steer clear of it. But here's the truth of the matter: I kind of loved the way my mom's Tuna Noodle Casserole tasted; I just didn't love the ingredient list — at all. At home last week, I sat down and made a list of what I liked about the dish and how I thought I could emulate those traits using more natural, whole ingredients.
And guess what? It worked! I call this a "Grown-Up Version" because it doesn't have the canned soup or frozen peas. Instead, I make a quick creamy sauce using a little flour and milk. I cook down cremini mushrooms with garlic, shallots and white wine, and toss in some finely chopped kale (or spinach) for a little color and texture.
The winning ingredient? A smattering of capers to add an occasional salty bite. I find them quite wonderful paired with the creamy sauce and the chunks of tuna. While the ingredient list is certainly a little longer than your basic Tuna Noodle Casserole, the little bit of extra effort goes a long way.
A few minor notes: I think you could likely get away with using low-fat milk here, but I'm a whole milk gal through and through, so that's what I opted for. You'll notice I call for cremini mushrooms in the recipe although if you have white button mushrooms at home, they'll work just fine. Cremini mushrooms hold up their shape a bit better than their paler cousins and don't release quite as much water, so I really like them for this dish.
Also, if you buy your pasta in a bag from the grocery store (instead of the bulk bins), they'll likely come in 16-ounce sizes; I found that to be too much for this recipe (it didn't get as creamy), so I reserve a few ounces to cook at a later time. If you'd prefer not to fuss with a scale at home, just eyeball it and take out about 1/4 of the noodles from your 16-ounce bag and you should be all set to make this creamy, delightful grown-up version of a childhood classic.
Grown-Up Tuna Noodle Casserole
Butter, to grease pan
12 ounces fusilli pasta (or shells or wide egg noodles -- whatever you like)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups sliced cremini mushrooms
1/3 cup minced shallots (about 2 large shallots)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups whole milk
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons capers, drained
2 5-ounce cans chunk light tuna, drained
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup thinly-sliced kale or spinach
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley, to top (optional)
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter a 2 1/2- or 3-quart casserole dish and set aside.
Cook the pasta until al dente in a large pot of boiling water. Drain and set aside.
In a large saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and shallots, and cook for about 5 minutes, or until shallots are translucent and mushrooms are beginning to soften. Add the garlic and continue cooking for 1 additional minute. Slowly pour in the wine, lower the heat to medium-low and cook until the liquid is reduced by half, about 3 minutes.
Add the flour to the pan and stir well to ensure all the mushrooms are coated. Increase the heat to high and slowly pour in the milk, bringing the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring to avoid sticking or clumping, until the milk begins to thicken and starts to look like more of a sauce, about 4 minutes.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the cooked pasta, Parmesan cheese, capers, tuna, sour cream, kale (or spinach), thyme, salt and pepper. Pour the creamy mushrooms sauce into the bowl and stir to coat all ingredients. Transfer the mixture to prepared casserole dish and set aside.
In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Sprinkle in the breadcrumbs and cook until fragrant and slightly toasty, 2-3 minutes. Sprinkle the crispy breadcrumbs over the top of the casserole and bake for 20 minutes, or until the top is lightly brown. Remove from the oven and sprinkle chopped parsley on top. Serve hot. Cover and refrigerate the leftovers for up to 3 days. The casserole also freezes beautifully.
(Images: Megan Gordon)