Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tuna Noodle Casserole... with integrity

Is any meal more comforting than a Tuna Noodle Casserole?

Though casserole recipes date back hundreds of years (made of anything from chicken or turkey to lobster or sweetmeats) the Tuna Casserole as we now know it didn't become an American staple until after the commercial canning of tuna in 1903 and a corporate promotional effort to encourage homemakers to use it as a protein alternative.

During the Great Depression, casseroles became increasingly popular as a means to extend the flavor of meat or fish to feed a whole family and Campbell Soup actively promoted their Cream of Mushroom Soup as an economical alternative to homemade sauces. From the 1930s through the 1950s, with the introduction of glass and lighter-weight metal cookware such Pyrex and Guardian Service, casseroles became quicker and easier to make and by the 70s, the rise of processed food led to the ubiquitous "Can-Can" Casserole (a can of tuna, a can of condensed mushroom or cheddar soup, a can of French's fried onions), robbing the dish of some of its wholesome elegance and sophistication.

A survey of casserole recipes from the 1940s forward reveals an increasing reliance on processed ingredients (what Michael Pollan refers to as "Dump-and-Stir" recipes). Obviously the first recipe using a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup was published by the company itself: in "Easy Ways to Good Meals: 99 Delicious Dishes Made With Campbell's Soups," 1941, we're advised, 
"Learn how to use Campbell's Soups in your casserole dishes. Discover what zestful flavor they give--what quick and easy substitutes for cream sauce some of them are--the precious minutes they save you in preparation--they make meals so attractive!"
In the 1946 edition of the stalwart "Joy of Cooking," even Irma Rombauer underscores the meal's convenience ("an excellent emergency dish") and uses a 16 oz can of mushroom soup. But of two Betty Crocker cookbooks I referenced, (the "Picture Cook Book," first edition, 1950 and "So You're Serving A Crowd," 1952), both include a white sauce rather a can of soup (although General Foods had more interest in selling flour and cereals than pre-packaged soups... and the second recipe is topped with Wheaties).

By 1965, the classic "Can-Can" Casserole had fully evolved into a warmed-over mess of pre-packaged foods. The Betty Crocker "Dinner in a Dish" calls for cans of not only soup, onions and tuna but canned macaroni and cheese too. Factories made that meal months ago—you're just warming it up.

While the Guardian Service Tested Recipes Cookbook doesn't include a recipe for Tuna Noodle Casserole, it has an easy Escalloped Salmon recipe which I've taken as a guide, employing whole ingredients and topped with fried leeks. Less sodium, less fat, fewer preservatives and more flavor, nutrition and, yes, integrity... and only one can—tuna—please.

for the Guardian Service Casserole/Tureen

8 oz egg noodles, cooked and drained
2 tbsp butter, plus some to dot the crust
8 oz Crimini mushrooms, quartered
2 tbsp dry sherry
1 shallot, minced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 tbsp flour
1 cup milk
2 tbsp sour cream
1 tsp dried dill
1 tsp grated nutmeg
1 12 oz can albacore tuna in water
salt and pepper to taste
8 oz fresh or frozen sweet peas
1/2 cup bread, cracker or potato chip crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan and/or cheddar cheese
1 leek, sliced into rings, fried in bacon fat and/or olive oil

In Guardian Service Cookware, prepare noodles in just enough water to cover.
  1. Cook Egg Noodles in the Tureen unit: Place noodles in Tureen, add pinch of salt and cover with boiling water. Cover and let steam for 8-10 minutes (they should be slightly under cooked so they don't turn to mush when baked in the casserole). Drain noodles in a colander with cold water and set aside.
  2. Prepare the topping: Slice the leek into thin rings and fry in melted bacon fat and or olive oil until brown and crisp. Grate cheeses and crumb bread or crackers and set aside.
  3. In the Casserole dish, melt 1 tbsp butter and sauté mushrooms until they release some of their liquid. Add sherry and simmer another few minutes. Remove mushrooms and set aside. Add remaining tbsp butter to mushroom juices; add the onion and celery and sauté until translucent.
  4. Gradually sprinkle flour over mixture, stirring constantly until it forms a roux and browns. Add milk and sour cream gradually and continue to stir until thickened. Remove from heat and add seasoning. You may wish to mix in the cheeses as well, or save to top the crust.
  5. Drain one 1 large (12 oz) can of tuna fish and flake with a fork. ("Be careful not to mince it as that isn't nearly as good," notes Rombauer). Fold in the egg noodles, peas and fish, ending with some noodles on top.
  6. Cover the top with crumbs, cheese and fried leeks, dot with butter.
  7. Place the tureen inside the casserole and cover. Cook over medium to 2/3 flame for 30 minutes or until heated through.
  8. Optional: Brown the crust using the stove-top browning technique.
A white sauce replaces the "traditional" canned soup.
The Guardian Service Casserole-Tureen bakes casseroles stove-top.
For the true Guardian Service enthusiast: Stove-top browning


  1. yummm ... tuna casserole. I totally get the desire to go beyond the canned goods element in this recipe. They're sort of the McDonaldization of food: copious salt + fat = involuntary thalamustic gustatory response.

    One question: part of the casserole experience is taking leftovers in the pot to the refrigerator, and then reheating the pot. How does aluminum handle that move from cold to hot, and then possibly back again?

  2. While Guardian Service cookware is excellent for stove-to-table service, it shouldn't be used to store food. The longer food remains in contact with the aluminum (especially highly acidic foods), the greater the chance of pitting or damaging the pan and the greater the amount of aluminum absorbed by the food.

    We're all of us wired to respond to salts and fats—it's why so many of our favorite corporate "fudz" are swimming in them. I find the waterless cooking methods preserve so much of the foods' flavor that I cook with less fat and salt and enjoy their effect more as a finishing note (a pat of butter, drizzle of olive oil, or freshly cracked sea salt).