Thursday, December 15, 2011

Not my grandmother's tuna casserole

I'm definitely a fan of tuna casserole. I had it for the first time in college, using a recipe from Clueless in the Kitchen. (Which happens to be one of my all-time favorite cookbooks. It's meant to be for the young, novice cook, which I was when I got it oh-so many years ago, and it's got some classic, reliable recipes that I continue to turn to even now.) I know it's a cliche, but there is something truly comforting about pasta smothered in warm, creamy mushroom sauce with crunchy potato chips on top.

In the years since I've become more particular about where my food comes from, I've tried to find ways to make tuna casserole a local, sustainable, and organic meal. I switched from crushed Ruffles potato chips to whole wheat breadcrumbs made from stale Beckmann's bread and from Campbell's condensed cream of mushroom soup to Annie's Organic cream of mushroom. The problem with the Annie's soup, though, is that it's too watery, being that it's not condensed. This all but eliminated the creamy sauce that makes a really great tuna casserole. But recently, I figured out how to solve that problem, thanks to your good friend and mine, Alton Brown.

Mr. Brown has a recipe for a green bean casserole, which he calls Not Your Mama's Green Bean Casserole. My friend Jessica brought it to Thanksgiving dinner, and I loved the mushroom sauce that enveloped the green beans. So I used that sauce in my tuna casserole — and you know what? It was the perfect sauce for that casserole, too.

Gourmet tuna casserole
(adapted from Cooking for the Clueless; sauce by Alton Brown)

1/2 leek, white and light green parts only, rinsed of grit and sliced
2 cups cooked whole wheat noodles, such as shells or rigatoni
1 6-oz can of good-quality tuna packed in olive oil, drained
4/3 cup multigrain crackers (or similar), crushed

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 ounces mushrooms, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup half-and-half
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375°.

In a large saucepan, saute leeks in a little olive oil over medium heat until soft, about 5 minutes. Remove leeks from pan and set aside.

In the same pan, make the sauce. Melt butter over medium-high heat, then add mushrooms and cook until the mushrooms begin to give up some of their liquid, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and nutmeg, and cook for about a minute, stirring frequently so that the garlic doesn't burn. Sprinkle the flour over, and stir to combine. Add the broth, and simmer for one minute. Add the half-and-half, and cook till the mixture thickens, about 6 to 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

In a casserole dish large enough to hold everything, put the leeks, pasta, tuna, and mushrooms sauce, and stir to combine. Sprinkle the crushed cracker crumbs over the top.

Bake at 375° for 25 minutes, until the casserole is bubbly and the crackers are golden-brown.

Makes about two servings.

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