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Monday, February 28, 2011

Tuna Noodle Casserole: Updated

I have a very simple litmus test when deciding whether to buy a cookbook.  I flip through and if I randomly open the book to three or more recipes that look like something I want to make, I buy it.  You would be surprised how few cookbooks actually make the cut.  But Mark Peel's New Classic Family Dinners was a surefire winner from the word go.  In fact, for the moment I think it may have replaced all other cookbooks as my favorite "everything looks so good" cookbook.  That's high praise because I have a lot of favorite cookbooks.

Last Friday I went down to Penn Mac in the Strip District.  My mission was to buy some hard to find pasta shapes and a couple of cans of Italian tuna packed in olive oil.  Of course, it would be lunacy to think that I could get out of there with just those few items.  I also came up with a couple of cans of San Marzano tomatoes, some cheese, olives, and mozzarella.  It was snowing, and I was parked two blocks away.  I showed restraint.

My new BFF, Mark Peel, has a recipe for tuna noodle casserole that is well beyond the Bumble Bee and Cream of Mushroom concoction that my mother used to make.  In fact, this rendition takes tuna noodle casserole far beyond that 1960's classic.  With its Italian tuna packed in olive oil and bechamel sauce infused with shallots and dried red pepper, this is tuna noodle for sophisticates.

This recipe requires a bit of time but the only really tricky part is preparing the bechamel sauce.  It has to be cooked very slowly and then strained.   The fresh breadcrumbs add a really nice crunch to the top, and they are so much more interesting that potato chips.  The use of the oil from the tuna as the fat in the breadcrumbs really ties the whole thing together nicely.

This was the best tuna noodle casserole I have ever eaten.  Ted agreed.  Kate agreed that it was very good but didn't really see a problem with the "classic."  But she's 15.  Who knows, maybe this new version will grow to be a classic too.

Recipe:  Campanile Tuna Noodle Casserole
(New Classic Family Dinners, 2009)


3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup minced onion or shallot
1 small dried red chile, whole
Kosher salt
2 1/2 cups whole milk

1/2 pound elbow macaroni
2 tablespoons olive oil from the tuna
2 6-ounce cans imported tuna packed in olive oil
4 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated (1 tightly packed cup)
3 tablespoons minced flat leaf parsley
1 1/2 cups (2 ounces) fresh bread crumbs
1 1/2 ounces Parmesan cheese freshly grated (1/2 tightly packed cup)

Make the bechamel:
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and add the flour.  Stir together with a wooden spoon until the roux is just barely golden, about 5 minutes.  Add the onion or shallot, chile, and bay leaf and continue to cook, stirring until the onion softens slightly.  Add 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Change from the wooden spoon to a whisk and whisk in the milk all at once.  Bring slowly to a simmer. Whisk continuously until the sauce thickens.  Use a heatproof spatula to scrape the bottom of the pan so the sauce doesn't stick and burn.  Reduce the heat and simmer gently for about 15 minutes more.

Remove from the heat and strain immediately, while hot, through a medium strainer into a bowl.  Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Assemble the casserole:
Preheat the oven to 375.  Butter a 2-quart baking dish.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add a generous tablespoon of salt.  Add the pasta and cook for a minute less than usual.  It should be cooked through but a little more chewy than you would ordinarily like.  Remove a ladleful of the pasta water and set aside in a bowl.  Drain the pasta and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil from the tuna in a large bowl.

Crumble the tuna into the bowl with the pasta and toss together.  Gently fold in the bechamel, the grated Gruyere, and 2 tablespoons of the parsley.  If the sauce seems to coat the pasta too thickly, add a little of the pasta water.  Spoon the mixture into the baking dish.  Mix together the bread crumbs, Parmesan, the remaining tablespoon of the parsley, and the remaining tablespoon of olive oil from the tuna.

Cover the casserole with foil and bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes.  Remove the foil and continue to bake for another 15 minutes, until the top has browned and the casserole is hot and bubbling.  Serve hot.

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