As classic as casseroles are in American cooking they are unusual and exotic fare for me. The only remotely casserole-type dish we ever ate growing up was lasagna. As a child I was mesmerized when I went to friends' houses and saw creamy concoctions stuffed with noodles and vegetables. If there was a crispy bread crumb topping I assumed I had died and gone to heaven (don't even get me started on my best friend's nana's noodle kugel... a sweet casserole? Hello!). My mother's cooking was (and still is) excellent but decidedly not the typical American diet I saw at my friends houses. Mom was taught how to cook by her own European born and raised mother, as well as heavily influenced by the fabulous New York City restaurants she frequented BC (Before Children). As an adult I appreciate the techniques, flavors and experiences my mother's cooking exposed me to; but as a child I craved the creamy casseroles I saw my friends' mothers preparing.
Casseroles as we know them in the US today became more common during the Great Depression as a way to stretch limited ingredients and inexpensive cuts of meat into a delicious new meal. Tuna casserole may date even earlier as tuna was first canned in 1903. During the 1950s the popularity of casseroles exploded with the rise in Campbells canned condensed soups and the company's heavily marketed convenience factor than enabled housewives to prepare a hot semi-homemade meal with canned and dry goods. Taking only about 35-40 minutes to prepare, including baking time, there was plenty of time to make a salad, set the table and have dinner ready in under an hour (whew - now I sound like a condensed soup commercial!)
Casseroles began to fall out of favor in the 1970s and today, for many, the idea of tuna noodle casserole evokes a vintage era of Church potlucks or childhood dinners in the land BFN (Before Food Network). No matter how cliche, as soon as the weather turns cool, I start to think about casseroles.
Finding myself with tuna, egg noodles and several other requisite ingredients already on hand I put together this incredibly satisfying tuna noodle casserole - without using any condensed soups. It's definitely a throwback to an earlier era and if you're like me and didn't grown up with this classic dish it will either seem completely bizarre or totally fascinating, but either way I hope you'll try it. By cooking the noodles in the stock and the cream you will impart a lot more flavor to them than if you cook them separately in water, while simultaneously saving yourself a step - true convenience cooking! Oh, and if you loathe tuna you can always substitute cooked, diced chicken or omit it altogether and add additional vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, etc.
Tuna Noodle Casserole serves 4-6
1 cup celery, finely diced (about 3 ribs)
1 cup onion, finely diced
4T butter, divided
15oz chicken stock
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 cups dry egg noodles
1 cup frozen peas
1/2 cup panko
nutmeg, to taste
salt & pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 400º F
In a soup pot large enough to cook noodles melt 2T of the butter. Saute the onions and celery until translucent. Sprinkle the flour over the whole and stir to combine and coat evenly. Add the chicken stock, cream and egg noodles. Add the thyme and season to taste with nutmeg, salt & pepper. Cook 8 minutes, or as directed on package (noodles should be al dente since they will continue cooking in the oven a bit). Add the tuna and frozen peas; stir to combine and adjust seasoning to taste.
Melt the other 2T of butter and combine with the panko. I also like to season my panko. Spread the noodle mixture into a casserole dish and top with the buttery panko. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the top is golden and bubbling. This is a rich dish so I would serve it in smaller portions with salad or a light broth-based soup.