They say you can’t go back. I say you shouldn’t want to.
The “good old days” never really existed.
Not when it comes to workload. (Who would want to sweat it out like Mrs. Patmore in the kitchen of Downton Abbey?)
And not in the culinary sense — at least not for those of us who came of age in the heyday of Cream-O-Something Soup.
Still, every now and then, I get a craving for tuna noodle casserole.
It’s more than the tug of nostalgia. I like tuna. I like noodles. And at this time of year, something hot, gooey and psychologically unchallenging can make everything right with the world.
Growing up, familiarity was tantamount to security. Webster’s didn’t define “consistency” with an illustration of tuna noodle casserole. But they could have.
Whether you were at a sleepover with the kid next door, or staying with cousins in Seattle, if tuna noodle casserole was on the menu, you knew what you were getting:
Packaged egg noodles and tuna, bound with Cream-O-Something soup.
The only variable was the choice between Campbell’s Cream of Celery or the slightly less bland Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom. (Campbell’s original recipe called for Cream of Celery; my mother brazenly chose the latter.)
That and whether the mom in the kitchen went the extra mile, crowning her magnum opus with a flourish of crushed potato chips.
Anxious to spread the love to a table of timid eaters, serving tuna noodle casserole to my own kids was clearly a matter of instinct.
But I could never bring myself to truly turn back the clock. At least not all the way.
I mean, it took no culinary genius to guess that the dish might be improved with some onion, and, of course, some celery. At some point, red bell pepper slipped into the mix. Fresh mushrooms were quick to follow, along with a handful of herbs.
Before I knew it, I’d upped the vegetable quotient to unprecedented levels, and — gasp! — completely ditched the Cream-O-Something soup, never pausing to lament the loss of monosodium glutamate, soy lecithin or outrageous levels of sodium.
Purists may scoff. To some, the only way to enjoy this classic is in its primal, Cream-O-Something form. I commend their loyalty.
But if you’re the type who spent your formative years in various acts of minor rebellion, consider reinventing this casserole a blast from your past — an iconoclastic tribute to a youth well squandered.
Toast your success by flaking in a tuna fillet! Celebrate your sophistication with artichokes or leeks! Do it to spite the Home-Ec teacher who forced you to make that awful dirndl skirt. Or the principal who marched you off to detention gulag for the crime you never committed.
Remake your childhood casserole your way. Here’s how I make mine.
UPDATED TUNA NOODLE CASSEROLE
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: Orecchiette (the ear-shaped pasta) are particularly good in this dish, as they offer nooks where peas can nestle. But any short noodle will do, including penne, shells and egg noodles. Use the water in the can that the tuna was packed in, for extra flavor. Same with the celery leaves and parsley stems; don’t throw them away. If you stuff stale bread in the freezer, fresh breadcrumbs are moments away; just whirl them in a food processor. Dry crusts may not process as finely, but consider that a bonus: Those buttery chunks add texture to the casserole. From Jo Marshall.
• 8 oz orecchiette or other short noodle (see Note)
• 1 stick butter (8 tbsp., divided), plus more for buttering dish
• 1 large onion, chopped
• 2 ribs celery, thinly sliced, leaves included (see Note)
• 1 red bell pepper, chopped
• 5 to 6 oz. cremini mushrooms, sliced
• 1/4 c. flour
• 3 (5 oz.) cans tuna in water, reserving water (see Note)
• 1 to 1 1/2 c. chicken broth
• 1 c. milk
• 1 c. frozen peas, thawed
• 1/2 c. chopped parsley (see Note)
• 1 1/2 c. shredded Colby Jack or other melting cheese, or more to taste
• Juice of 1/2 lemon, or more to taste
• Salt and pepper, to taste
• Dried dill or thyme, to taste, if desired
• 1 c. coarse homemade breadcrumbs or panko breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Boil pasta, then drain.
Meanwhile, melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet. Add onion and celery and sauté until tender. Add bell pepper and mushrooms, and sauté until mushrooms have given up most of their liquid.
Stir in flour and cook, stirring, until the flour just begins to turn color. (If it seems overly dry, add another tablespoon of butter.)
Drain tuna water into a measuring cup, adding enough chicken broth to make 1½ cups. Stir tuna water/broth into the skillet to make a roux. Add milk and cook, stirring, until sauce is slightly thickened.
Toss tuna, pasta, peas, parsley and cheese with the vegetable/sauce mixture. Add lemon juice to taste. Season with salt and pepper, along with dill or thyme. Transfer to a buttered 9- by 13-inch casserole dish.
Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter and stir in the breadcrumbs. Sprinkle the buttered crumbs over the top of casserole, and bake 25 to 30 minutes, until bubbling and nicely browned.
Nutrition information per each of 6 servings:
Calories 600 Fat 27 g Sodium 1,020 mg
Carbohydrates 51 g Saturated fat 16 g Calcium 330 mg
Protein 39 g Cholesterol 110 mg Dietary fiber 4 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 3 ½ bread/starch, 4 lean meat, 3 fat.
Jo Marshall is a Minneapolis writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.