What would American cuisine would be like without processed foods? Would grilled cheese be so popular if it home cooks couldn’t use pre-cut slices of American cheese? Would we eat pudding if it hadn’t been for Jello? Would we be a country of mac and cheese eaters without Velveeta?
One thing I’m sure of – tuna noodle casserole would never have risen to such prominence in American food culture were it not for the Campbell’s soup company. The company heavily promoted casserole recipes using canned soups during the Great Depression as quick, filling and economical meals, including the now-famous tuna noodle casserole. I can see the appeal – mix together some canned cream of mushroom soup, cooked noodles and canned tuna, bake, and dinner is served.
That was not my experience with tuna noodle casserole, which is why I can’t imagine this dish ever becoming popular without processed foods to cut down on the prep time. After making the thing from scratch I can safely say – tuna noodle casserole is a pain. This has actually been my complaint about all of the casseroles I’ve made for this month’s project – without the processed foods, they are time-intensive little suckers.
Granted, this tuna noodle casserole could have been easier to make, but I wanted it to taste really good. This is the one casserole I made this month where I didn’t take health into account; instead, I invited some friends over to help me finish the thing off. In fact, some of of my friends now suspect I have a secret plan to fatten them up, but I swear it’s not true. I’m just tired of healthy casseroles.
I used a couple of recipes as a basis for this casserole but made alterations to suit my own tastes. This casserole was gussied up with sauteed garlic, onions, and mushrooms; a cheddar, Parmesan and white wine béchamel; fresh basil; and pesto and Asiago cheese bread crumbs.
I liked this combination of flavors so much that the tuna ended up being a distraction. I loved how the cheesy, wine-y béchamel enhanced the flavors of the sweet onions, pungent garlic, and earthy onions. I loved how the crisp, herbal flavor of the basil sang in the dish. I loved how the salty, savory, crunchy bread crumbs contrasted with the soft and cheesy noodles. But the tuna? Even with all these other ingredients, it just tasted fishy – and not in a good way.
If I were to make this again, I think I’d omit the tuna, and rename this as a cheese, onion, and mushroom casserole – I might even make it with macaroni and say that it’s a twist on your standard mac and cheese. But, like I said before, this recipe was a lot of work, so I’m not sure when that day will come. Between sautéing the vegetables, making the béchamel, boiling the noodles, coating the bread crumbs in butter, and baking the casserole, we’re looking at a four pan recipe – and that doesn’t even account for all the chopping and cheese grating that goes into this.
So that’s it. It’s the last day of September, and the end of the casserole project. Am I sad it’s over? A little. Really, these month-long projects mostly teach me that there’s so much I have yet to cook – I didn’t make moussaka, or lasagna, or a Gourmet version of green bean casserole. So much left to cook, so little time.
And speaking of time, maybe next month should be quick recipes – I certainly need a break after all these casseroles.
Recipe: Cheesy Tuna Noodle Casserole With Mushrooms, Onions, and Wine
2 1/2 cups whole milk
9 tbs butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
3/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
4 oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1 pound wide egg noodles
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
4 cloves onions, finely chopped
1 pint mushrooms (I used regular old button mushrooms, but any would do), diced
2 tbs finely chopped fresh basil
2 6 oz cans tuna
2 cups fresh bread crumbs – I used basil and Asiago cheese bread for these bread crumbs and it was amazing, but any rustic white bread would do nicely.
Preheat oven to 375F.
Heat milk until warm (but not boiling), either in a measuring cup in the microwave, or over low heat in a small saucepan on the stove. In a large saucepan, melt four tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add flour and cook for two minutes, whisking constantly. Add milk and stir until thickened – around 5 minutes. Add wine and cook for another three minutes. Take the pan off the heat and add the cheeses; stir until melted. Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste.
In a large pot of boiling water, cook egg noodles until tender. Drain.
In a large saute pan over medium low heat, heat one tbs of butter. Add the onion and cook until just beginning to soften. Add the mushrooms and garlic and sauté until soft and cooked through.
Add the noodles, mushroom mixture, basil, and tuna to the sauce and stir until combined. Transfer mixture to a casserole dish – two 8 inch casseroles or one 9 by 13 inch dish would do (although I used my oval casserole dish).
Melt the remaining four tablespoons of butter. Toss with the breadcrumbs in a small bowl. Spread bread crumbs evenly over top of casserole.
Bake for 30 minutes, until the filling is bubbling. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.