Tuna Noodle Casserole

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The chat went something like this.

Craig-At-Work: What’s for dinner?

Me-At-Home: I’m thinking of making a tuna noodle casserole.

Craig-At-Work: Ugh. If I never eat a tuna noodle casserole again for the rest of my life, that’d be ok.

Me-At-Home: Well I’ve never had one before so I’m going to make it, just for the sake of writing about it.

[Silence.]

Me-At-Home: Are you there? Hello? HELLO?

Craig-At-Work is no longer online.

There are certain advantages to growing up in a family where every meal is either eaten out or ordered in: those classic American dinner staples–lasagna, meatloaf, tuna noodle casserole–aren’t sources of dismay and torture, they’re not the psychological equivalent of prison food; no, they contain a patina of newness, of excitement, of Ozzy-and-Harriet all-American wholesome charm.

I think of lasagna as a special treat, a happy marriage of meat and cheese and tomato sauce. And meatloaf? I love it, I think it’s great. The less fancy it is, too, the better: I like it with a layer of glazed ketchup on top. No foofy reduction sauce for me, thank you very much.

But tuna noodle casserole? I only knew it as a punchline, the kind of thing you’d hear on an old episode of “Roseanne” (Darlene: “This chili doesn’t taste like anything.” Roseanne: “You’re lucky it’s not tuna noodle casserole.”) I’d somehow avoided tuna noodle casserole my entire life and now, finally, I was going to make it.

My reasons were two-fold: (1) times are hard (in case you haven’t noticed) so it would be cheap and plentiful; and (2) my friend Emily Farris wrote a book called “Casserole Crazy” that I really wanted to try.

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I actually ran into Emily outside of Alchemy in Park Slope and I asked her which casserole I should make first. “Tuna noodle,” she said. “It’s a classic.”

After my discouraging chat with Craig, I headed to the store to buy the ingredients. I must admit that when I came home and spread them all out on the counter, they made me a little nervous:

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It wasn’t so much the tuna or the noodles or even, really, the peas. It was the cream of mushroom soup and the potato chips. I felt like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman were going to beat down my door and wonk me on the head.

Still, they might’ve shown restraint if they knew the one optional ingredient I skipped out on: Salsa Con Queso Cheez Whiz. As Emily writes, “This version of the classic tuna noodle casserole is my aunt Susie’s. Her secret ingredient is the Salsa Con Queso Cheez Whiz, but if you’re just not willing to go there, Parmesan will do just fine. Or skip the cheese altogether. A ‘real’ classic tuna noodle casserole doesn’t call for any cheese.”

The assembly and cooking of this casserole couldn’t be easier (which is why, I’m sure, it’s such an American staple.) Boil 1 bag (12-oz.) of egg noodles until just al dente. Mix the cooked noodles with 1 (16 oz.) can cream of mushroom soup (I had two cans b/c I could only find 10 oz. cans), 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, 2 (6 oz.) cans white albacore tuna drained, 1 large white onion (chopped), 1 16 oz. package frozen sweet peas and salt and pepper. Lay it all in a 2 1/2 to 3 quart casserole dish.

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I have to make a confession here. In tasting this unbaked mixture to see if the seasoning was right, I REALLY liked it. Like way more than I should have. Somehow the uncooked tuna, the cold (still frozen) peas, the raw onion, the cheese and the just-cooked egg noodles worked some kind of magic in my mouth that let me ignore the gross, glue-like mushroom soup that was also mixed in there. If I ever reinvent a tuna noodle casserole (a subject I’ll get to again at the end of this post), a raw food version might not be out of the question!

Into the oven it went–375 F–for 35 to 40 minutes (until bubbling.)

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Out it came and on went the coup de grâce: crushed potato chips (a few handfuls.)

Back into the oven it went for 10 minutes and it came out looking like you see in the picture at the very top.

Craig came home around now and he was not very happy. I convinced him that this’d be a better version than the one he grew up with (sorry Craig’s mom!) and prepped him a bowl:

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Lucky for Craig’s mom, my fatal mistake was the one I bragged about earlier: leaving out the gooey cheese. “Where’s the cheese?” asked Craig, digging in.

“I used a little Parmesan,” I answered.

“Usually a casserole has lots of cheese.”

Indeed, this cheeseless casserole was kinda soulless and, for my tastes, a little too tunafishy. Someone on Twitter said they don’t like tuna noodle casserole because they don’t like “hot tuna.” After this first experience, I can relate: hot tuna just doesn’t hit the spot the way cold tuna does.

But Emily must be commended for making the casserole so approachable and so easy; her other recipes look way more up my alley, so I’m not done with Casserole Crazy, yet, no sirree. And in hard economic times, it can’t be denied that casseroles are a smart–almost inevitable–thing to make to feed a large family well or even just two people over the course of a week.

As for the tuna noodle noodle casserole, am I done with that? Here’s the thing: I’d like to take it upon myself to reinvent it, to rethink it, to come up with a better version. One thought is to build off the idea of a Salad Niçoise: what if you mixed the egg noodles with the tuna but then you added capers, anchovies, cherry tomatoes, slightly cooked haricot vert, and maybe even a hard boiled egg? What would glue it together? That’s the part I’m not sure about. But it might be worth tinkering with.

Or what if, as suggested earlier, you made a tuna noodle casserole pasta salad. So you cook penne instead of egg noodles and then add a can of tuna, barely cooked peas, chopped red onion, olive oil, and maybe some garlic and a splash of vinegar? I bet that’d be really good. And no potato chips or cream of mushroom soup required.

Perhaps I should have a contest: a Reinvent The Tuna Casserole Contest. What would the prize be? Maybe a copy of Emily’s book? Emily, are you reading this? Can we give your book away as a prize? Will you help judge?

Share your entries in the comments and let’s see what happens!

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