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Tuna Noodle Casserole, A Hot Dish In Need Of An Update, Gets One

Classic tuna noodle casserole is an often maligned yet much beloved hot dish.
Classic tuna noodle casserole is an often maligned yet much beloved hot dish.

Desperation, laziness, overwhelming craving: I say these are three conditions that drive a person to make a tuna noodle casserole.

The desperation? A cupboard bare except for those nonperishable standards: pasta, a can of tuna and a can of cream of mushroom soup. Our friends along the Northeast Seaboard probably know what we're talking about right now.

And laziness. Well, really, aside from boiling water, working a can opener, and crushing a bag of potato chips, how much effort does it take to make this dish?

Overwhelming craving is self-explanatory. Sometimes you just have to have tuna noodle casserole.

Fortunately, writer Ellen Brown has upgraded this often maligned yet much beloved hot dish.

She's the founding food editor of USA Today and the author of a number of cookbooks. Her latest is Mac & Cheese: 80 Classic & Creative Versions of the Ultimate Comfort Food. Therein, between Sherried Mac and Cheese and Mayan Chipotle Chicken Mac and Cheese is a recipe for tuna noodle casserole.

She told us about it for our series Found Recipes.

"All of the recipes that go into my books are tasted by a wonderful group of friends with palates I really trust, but when I told them about my plan they looked really worried," she says.

Her friends peppered her with questions: "Was I going to make it Szechuan? Suddenly there're chiles in it? Would I be adding fru-fru stuff like radicchio?"

Brown took note that if she wanted to upgrade, she needed to stick close to the original model. Her biggest change involves ditching the can of cream of mushroom soup and making a white sauce from scratch.

"Mine is done with dried porcini mushrooms, which have a much more intense mushroom flavor than the button mushrooms that are used in the can of soup," she says. "I added some mozzarella cheese to make it a little bit richer. Some fresh thyme to enliven the flavor, I think that was a crucial difference, and there is a significant amount of sauteed onions and celery."

And while she did use potato chips for the topping, she went with reduced-fat kettle-cooked chips because they stayed crisper longer.

Then it was time for the taste test. Brown presented her friends with a plate with the Campbell's soup version of tuna noodle casserole on one side, and her revamped version on the other.

"I was thrilled," she says. "Everybody loved the updated version. They all said it was delicious and couldn't wait to make it themselves."

Brown says the key to success was rekindling the emotions her friends felt when they had tuna noodle casserole as a kid. "You know, a lot of food professionals keep saying we eat with our eyes first? I don't think we eat with our senses first. I think we eat first with our emotions."

Tuna Noodle Casserole

There's nothing wrong with this cafeteria standard that replacing the can of cream of mushroom with a porcini cheese sauce doesn't fix. It's still topped with crushed potato chips, and while your childhood memories might not include sauteed vegetables, they certainly enhance both the flavor and texture.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

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 deep brown. Allow to sit for 5 minutes, then serve.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Melissa Gray is a senior producer for All Things Considered.