Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Recipe Request: Kate's Tuna Casserole

This spring, I went home to spend a couple of weeks helping mom recover from a shoulder surgery. When I headed back to California, I needed to leave a store of food for her that would be wholesome, delicious and comforting. It needed to freeze well and be easy to prepare with with only one arm.

I made a big pot of my tuna casserole, baked it in single-portions using an oversized silicon muffin "pan." (Amazon) When completely cooled, then frozen, I popped the individual servings out and into freezer storage bags to leave behind a dozen easy-to-store servings of protein- and vegetable-filled yum. (I did the same with my Bison Bolognese, but that's another post.)

And, yay! The tuna casseroles were a hit. In fact, friends are now asking for the recipe. So I am posting it here for all. It is a slightly fancified version of the casserole my mom made for me as a kid. Still, it remains pretty easy and humble. I kept the can of Campbell's Cream of Celery Soup as the base for its sauce.

This is a recipe that I've made for many years without writing it down. It's one of those do-by-feel things. Feel free to vary the amounts of the ingredients to your own tastes; the basic recipe can accommodate lots of tinkering. It would still be yummy -- though slightly different -- if you exchange button mushrooms for the shiitakes, or swap out the fresh herbs for dry. Wide egg noodles or big shells can stand in for mostaccioli or campenelli. You can skip the white wine, but you'll lose a pleasant little tanginess. I've made a "lighter" version by dropping the butter, using fat-free milk even using less pasta. Please don't, however, exchange the fresh grated Parmesan for store-grated; I can't be responsible for that! And yes, because this is a good old mutt of an American casserole, this tuna dish includes cheese.

Don't be intimidated by the long ingredient list; it all comes together simply.

  • A large casserole dish (at least 2 quart / 8 X 11") or -- for individual servings -- a silicone mold for extra large muffins
  • A large sauce pan, stew pot or dutch oven - you need lots of room to stir
  • Large pasta pot
  • Sheet pan or cookie sheet
  • 1 - 11oz pack or 2 - 5oz cans of tuna packed in water, drained
  • 1 can Campbell's Classic Cream of Celery Soup or the Healthy Request version (10.5 oz)
  • 1 medium-to-large yellow or white onion chopped
  • 1 large or 2 small stalks of celery
  • 5 large toes of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 or 2 serrano peppers, chopped (I use mine with the seeds and veins, but you can remove them for less heat. Use 1/4 bell pepper for no heat at all.) 
  • 3-1/2 to 5 oz Shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (not too thin)
  • 1 c. frozen green peas, rinsed in warm water and drained
  • 1/2 c dry white wine -- Pinot Grigio or even champagne, if that's what you're drinking
  • About 1/2 c milk -- I use the empty Campbell's can and fill it half way
  • 2 or 3 tbs olive oil.
  • 2 Tbs butter cut in a few small cubes
  • 2 round tsp of fresh thyme chopped
  • 1 Tbs fresh oregano chopped
  • A small bunch of Italian flat leaf parsley (a big handful), leaves coarsely chopped; stems chopped finely and set aside separately
  • One pound pkg of dried pasta -- I like mostaccioli or capenelli, but any hearty casserole noodle will do
  • 1/2 c bread crumbs -- I like Progresso Italian Breadcrumbs or panko
  • 6 oz Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano or other tasty hard cheese; grated 
  • Salt and black pepper


Preheat oven to 375°.

Cook the pasta in salted water.* Cook for 2 minutes less than is recommended on the package. Drain completely and set aside.

In a small bowl combine 1/4 of the cheese and the bread crumbs, use your fingers to mix well, set aside.

Over a medium-high flame, heat the olive oil in the sauce pan. Add onions, sprinkle with a little salt and sauté for 2 minutes. Add celery, parsley stems and peppers and sauté until onions are translucent. Add garlic, thyme and oregano; stir to combine and continue to cook for another minute.

Add the mushrooms, stir and continue to cook until they soften a bit.

Add the wine to deglaze. Simmer until the liquid is reduced by half.

Add the tuna and stir to combine all the ingredients. Cook for a couple minutes until the tuna is heated through and everything is well mixed.

Add the can of soup and 1/2 can of milk. Stir to combine all ingredients and smooth out the condensed soup. You can add a bit more milk if things look too thick, add only a small amount at a time. You want the result to be a very thick tuna sauce.

Continue to cook, stirring often until the sauce begins to simmer. When it is lightly bubbling, add the butter and when the butter is incorporated, add the remaining grated cheese.

When the cheese is fully melted into the sauce, stir in the peas and parsley leaves.

Taste and add salt and pepper as you like.

Now, add the pasta to your pot a little bit at a time until your mélange starts to take on a casserole consistency. Mix everything well. You especially don't want pockets of sauce and areas of "dry" pasta. The pasta should be well coated and suspended in the thick sauce. (You may have some pasta left over, see * below)

Pour the pasta mixture into your large casserole dish (or spoon into your muffin pan)**, pressing lightly on the pasta with your cooking spoon, helping it to settle into the dish. It should be densely packed. Don't flatten the pasta on top, though, as the uneven areas where the pasta peaks on top creates a pleasing crispy finish.

Sprinkle your bread crumb/cheese mixture on top of all, carefully and lightly covering the whole top surface. (It you really want extra richness, you can dot the top with butter, too.)

Place your casserole dish on a sheet pan or cookie sheet and bake uncovered for 40 minutes or until the tops are golden brown and the sauce is bubbling.

Allow to stand for 5 to 10 minutes before serving -- this is difficult with the whole house smelling like yummy casserole, but worth it as it really affects the texture of the casserole. 

Spoon servings onto plates or into shallow bowls with a little side salad and enjoy the casserole comfort!

A note about freezing individual portions: This recipe makes 12 big "muffins" with some left over for the mandatory cook's portion. (Cup diameter = 3 inches) To freeze single servings, let the casserole cool completely in place in the silicone muffin pans. Tuck a little plastic wrap loosely around the top of each muffin of casserole and place the whole pan in the freezer. Freeze until solid, remove the plastic wrap and carefully pop each muffin out. Wrap each muffin in aluminum foil and store in a large freezer bag. Remove foil and heat in microwave or oven, thawed or straight from the freezer.

*Depending on the kind and shape of pasta you choose, you may have some unused pasta left from this recipe. (I refrigerate it and use it for a quick dinner -- like pasta all'aglione -- later in the week.)

**I've also made my mixture in a dutch oven and sprinkled the top with the breadcrumb mixture and put the whole thing uncovered into the oven. It's more casual, but it works great and there's less to clean.