Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Smoky Tuna (Noodle) Casserole

Smoky tuna noodle casserole

"So what is this?" asks Chris, as I set down our dinner plates.

"It's smoky tuna...oh $#!t...I forgot the noodles."

Has this happened to you? It happens to the best of everyone. You work long and hard on a dish only to discover--when it's too late--that a star ingredient has been left out.

Sometimes the damage is irreparable, like when you forget to add the cup of sugar to your dessert and it tastes savory in an off-putting way. In those cases, you just need to start over.

In the case of this tuna noodle casserole, the disaster was quickly fixed. I'd already cooked the noodles the day before. I'd just forgotten to add them to the casserole before baking it ("this is awfully soupy," I was thinking when I dished it up, still not registering that the noodles' absence was the reason). I heated the noodles a couple minutes in the microwave, dumped the casserole into a large bowl, and mixed everything together. Voila. The lovely crumb topping was lost amid the rest of the ingredients, but the dish still tasted like it should and was thusly salvaged.

Giving you an example of a kitchen rescue wasn't the original purpose of this recipe. Instead, I was trying to come up with a more flavorful version of a classic but rather bland dish. Many versions are made with cream of mushroom soup and a noted lack of seasonings. I wanted my casserole to have better texture and flavor.

Velouté flavored with thyme sprigs.

I leaned pretty heavily on a recipe from Cook's Illustrated's The New Best Recipe, which uses velouté instead of cream of mushroom soup as the casserole's binding. Velouté is one of the five classic "mother" sauces of French cooking, so called because the sauces are the foundations for making other sauces. Velouté is simply a roux (butter and flour) with a light stock and seasoning. In this regard, it's very similar to béchamel, which is made with milk instead of stock (see it in action in bolognese lasagna and macaroni and cheese). In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child includes a single recipe covering both sauces, noting that the stock and milk are interchangeable to make velouté or béchamel respectively.

Here's where I went wrong: there should be noodles stirred in at this point.

In addition to improving the dish's texture, I wanted to add more flavor. For all-around zip, I added a little Dijon mustard, a touch of cayenne pepper for spice and a few capers for their sour brininess. Since this is the beginning of summer grilling season, I also wanted to add a good layer of smoke, which I achieved by using smoked gouda in the sauce and smoked paprika for the bread crumb topping. Certainly this would work nicely in your backyard barbecue spread.

Despite the lack of noodles, it still looked good coming out of the oven.

Smoky Tuna Noodle Casserole
Adapted from Tuna Noodle Casserole, The New Best Recipe by The Editors of Cook's Illustrated

Crumb topping:
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 cup fresh bread crumbs (to make fresh bread crumbs, pulse torn chunks of crustless bread in a food processor until they are the desired size)
Pinch of salt
2 tsp. smoked paprika

1 lb pasta, small shape like conchigliette (shells) or elbow macaroni
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 large (or two smaller) sweet onion, diced
2 celery ribs, diced
12 oz. cremini mushrooms
Salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste
4 tbsp. (half stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 3/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves plus a few sprigs of fresh thyme
4 oz. (about 1 cup) shredded smoked gouda cheese
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
10 oz. albacore tuna, from pouches or cans
1 tbsp. capers
1 cup peas (fresh or frozen thawed)

1. Preheat oven to 450 F.

2. Make the crumb topping: melt butter in a medium frying pan over medium-low heat. Add the bread crumbs, season with salt and smoked paprika, and stir to coat the crumbs with butter. Cook, stirring occasionally until the crumbs are lightly toasted. Set aside.

3. Cook the pasta according to package directions for al dente. Drain and set aside.

4. Heat olive oil a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and celery and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté until the mushrooms are lightly browned, another 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper as you cook. Remove vegetables from pan and set aside.

5. Turn heat down to medium. Melt butter in skillet, then whisk in the flour. Cook, whisking constantly, until lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Whisking constantly, slowly add the chicken broth until fully incorporated. Add the fresh thyme and cook, whisking occasionally, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove the thyme sprigs. Turn heat down to medium-low. Add the shredded cheese by handfuls and whisk to combine each addition as the cheese melts into the sauce. Once all of the cheese is added, keep whisking until smooth. Remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the cayenne pepper, Dijon mustard and fresh lemon juice.

6. Add the cooked pasta, tuna, capers and peas to the sauce and stir until the ingredients are evenly combined. Transfer to a 9 X 13 baking dish. Smooth the top with a spatula. Sprinkle the cooked bread crumbs evenly on top. Bake in the oven until bubbly, about 10 minutes. Serve hot.


  1. Another delicious dinner thanks to you! Using the smoked gouda made this dish rise above any other tuna noodle casserole I have ever made. Thank you.

    1. I'm so glad you liked it! I love how adding a smoky ingredient can give a dish a new interesting dimension.

  2. Looks like this dish was a hit. Congrats!