***This post is dedicated to someone very special, to whom I also dedicated the recipe***
Tuna noodle casserole. The dish conjures up all kinds of memories or images: Leave It to Beaver, The Brady Bunch, church ladies, funerals, Middle American, 1960s housewives, Fannie Farmer and Betty Crocker. I think tuna noodle casserole has gotten a bad rep, because of what it represents rather than how it tastes. There’s a class and regional connotation to the dish, and if there’s a dish that signifies the feminine mystique, it’s tuna noodle casserole. On The Frugal Gourmet, Jeff Smith devoted a whole episode to casseroles, but vowed never to make tuna noodle casserole, going as far as to say that the dish made him sick.
But to others it means mom or grandma. It means comfort food, like mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese. It means solitary, isolated moments of simplicity in an otherwise complex and difficult world. It’s a source of nostalgia – some of it misplaced, but some of it also valid.
My family was as ethnic as can be, so the dish never made it on my kitchen table. To me, tuna noodle casserole was exotic, like couscous can be for someone in rural or suburban Missouri. When I grew up and started eating and cooking on my own, I never folded tuna noodle casserole into my recipes or culinary repertoire, because of the unfair image the dish had.
But I decided I’d try to make it. I had to reinvent it somehow, because I’m on a diet and I watch my sodium intake, and I found that most recipes call for tinned cream soups – loaded with fat, salt, cholesterol. So I had to make my own base, so I did a healthier variation on the white sauce, bechamel – the same kind used as a base for mac n’ cheese.
I also didn’t want to load up on carbs and cholesterol with the noodles – so I found No Yolks – brand of yolk-less egg noodles. I wanted to use as many vegetables as I could, so I included baby bella mushrooms (as most classic tuna noodle casseroles call for cream of mushroom soup), celery (many recipes call for cream of celery soup), peas, and onions. If I had green beans that were still good, I would’ve used those as well. I eyed using brussel sprouts for the bottom, but my partner hates brussel sprouts, so I left them out.
For the crust, I looked to fat-free potato chips, the kind cooked with Olestra – I know, I know – the anal leakage thing – it’s fine when you don’t go nuts with it. I also found that Whole Foods has its own brand of crispy onions, but after a quick look online at the nutritional info of French’s French fried onions, the amount of fat, sodium, etc. is pretty much the same.
Finally, I needed a basic how-to of how to make a casserole – technical stuff like how long to cook it, and at what temperature. For that, I turned to The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.
Ingredients – this is for a smallish casserole that would comfortably feed two people:
1 tin of tuna fish – I like mine packed in oil. I get Tonna Genova tuna, packed in oil. It’s a little pricey, but tastes great.
1/2 cup of celery, finely chopped – this should be about 1 rib of celery
1/4 onion, chopped finely – it doesn’t matter what onion you use – I had some red onion left over from when I made lox and bagels
4 oz of mushrooms, chopped – again, it’s according to taste, though baby bellas have more flavor
1 cup of frozen peas
1/4 cup of plain yogurt – I love Greek yogurt because it’s so rich.
1/2 cup of fat free sour cream
1 cup of low sodium or salt-free chicken or vegetable broth
1 1/2 cups of pasta – I used No Yokes egg noodles
a couple handfuls of potato chips, crushed
4 tbl of crispy fried onions
a pinch of nutmeg
a pinch of Italian seasonings
freshly ground pepper
Preheat your oven to 375. Boil the pasta in plenty of water according to the directions on the packet – just shave off a couple of minutes so the pasta isn’t too tender (remember, you’re going to be throwing this in a casserole in a hot oven).
While the pasta is cooking, heat some olive oil over a medium-high heat and throw in your vegetables into a nonstick skillet and stir constantly, letting them get some color. This will take about 8 minutes. Be careful to stir constantly so that nothing gets burned. Add a bit of broth if you feel like the vegetables are sticking too close to the bottom of the pan.
In a mug, mix the cream, the yogurt, and the nutmeg and stir together. Add a couple of tablepoons of the broth to thin it out. Leave aside.
Check on your vegetables – if they’ve softened, add 1/4 cup of the broth and stir. Then add the cream-yogurt mixture and stir constantly so that it doesn’t curdle (fat-free sour cream has a tendency to do that). Raise the heat to high and stir constantly while cooking, letting the sauce thicken – this will start to take on the appearance and nature of Alfredo sauce, which is a good thing. Keep stirring (I had a DVD of Kevin Sullivan’s Anne of Green Gables to entertain me in the background), until the sauce thickens to the consistency of jarred alfredo sauce – if you can run a spoon through the sauce and see the bottom of the pan, you’re golden.
Check on your pasta – if it’s almost done, drain – but don’t rinse. Add to the cream-veggie mixture and stir. Add the can of tuna and mix. Your mixture should be pretty dry at this point. Transfer the whole lot into a casserole. Sprinkle with Italian seasonings and freshly ground pepper. Sprinkle the chips over the top and sprinkle the French-fried onions, as well. Throw it into the oven and cook for about 25 to 35 minutes – mine took only 25 minutes to cook. For the last two minutes or so, I turned on the broiler to get some color on the chips – just be careful the casserole doesn’t burn, so keep the oven door open so you can keep an eye on it.
Take out of the oven – but be very careful, the casserole will be very hot – make sure you use a good pot holder, otherwise you may get seriously injured. Serve with a small side salad of spinach greens. Oh, and enjoy.