Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"The Casserole Queens Cookbook" - Tuna Noodle Casserole for Good Friday 2017

Date I made this recipe – April 14, 2017 – Tuna Casserole for Good Friday

The Casserole Queens Cookbook by Crystal Cook & Sandy Pollock
Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers
ISBN: 978-0-307-71785-6; copyright 2011
Recipe:  Tuna Noodle Casserole – p. 53

"Love it or hate it, the tuna noodle casserole is an American classic."
The Casserole Queens Cookbook authors Crystal Cook & Sandy Pollock

Exactly!  I could not agree with our authors more.

I love tuna noodle casserole but only if it contains peas.  No peas, no casserole, this is my rule.  And no potato chips, also another rule.  And although I've eaten tuna casserole with chow mein noodles or rice as the base, I prefer noodles because the other two ingredients just seem weird to me. Happily, this dish hit the jackpot with tuna, peas, and noodles (the Holy Trinity?) and life was good.

Now I love tuna casserole year-round but this year, I thought it might be a hoot if I could find a recipe for Good Friday when Catholics everywhere refrain from eating meat. You probably know that "thou shalt not eat meat on Fridays applies to the entire Lenten season, but Good Friday is the day you need to land all your jumps, so to speak, no exceptions.

Let's talk for a minute about my issues with this rule namely, if meat is verboten, then most people turn to fish and I do not like fish. These days, there are a million other things besides fish to eat that will satisfy this rule, but back in the day ('60's and '70's), finding a decent substitute was a nightmare.  McDonald's introduction of the Filet-O-Fish Sandwich in 1965 (all locations) helped some but I don't remember eating it during Lent, not that I would have anyway.  I know they do blockbuster sales of this sandwich during Lent but I just cannot go there.  Nope.

Briefly then, please take a walk down memory lane with me as I look back (not necessarily "with fondness") on Lenten Fridays and Good Friday, starting with Sacred Heart Catholic School.  I've noted in previous blogs that the food at this small school was wretched and although I cannot say for certain what we ate during Lent, I'm remembering a very tasteless and not-very-cheesy macaroni and cheese. Bleh.

I have no recollection of fish but I'm thinking that the school didn't dare serve us fish because nobody would eat it and our nuns had a huge problem with children not eating what was presented to them which was, I might add, one food item and one food item, take it or...take it.  We were never given an option of refusing the daily menu item and if Sister(s) caught you trying to throw it out, there was hell to pay, I'm not kidding.  As an aside, if nuns had tats, one would likely say "Remember the starving children of Biafra," and the other, "I hate children."

At any rate and moving on, the food at my combined public junior high and high school was thankfully a vast improvement, and I have memories of being served a really good Shrimp Burger on Lenten Fridays.  One of these days, I'm going to have to try to recreate that version to see how close I can come to my fond memory.

Then there was college and let me just take this opportunity to confess my sin regarding my college cafeteria.  Whereas these days, colleges and universities provide endless meat-less options year-round, back then my college served fish on Friday or lasagna.  Yes, I know, it's an odd combination, but there you go.  Since I don't like fish under normal circumstances, there was no way I was going to eat it in a college cafeteria (fish + heat lamp = not good) so I didn't, choosing the lasagna instead.

Well my mother was a by-the-book Catholic and so when she inquired about my fish on Friday options, I lied my pants off:  "Mother, it's a public university.  They are not beholden to serve fish on Friday and so they don't.  They offer lasagna.  With meat." [Insert look of maternal horror here.]

My mother thought about it for a minute and then recommended that I ask the local priest for dispensation (basically permission to stand down on the fish option) and so once again, I perpetuated a fraud on the church and on him and my mother and sheesh, I should have been hit by a lightning bolt (the nuns always said we would be if we lied) but instead, got my wish to have Lenten Lasagna on Fridays.  Just call me Garfield.

Turning our attention to the home front, during Lent our family ate fried shrimp, fish sticks (Mrs. Paul's - always) and canned salmon and canned mackerel that my dad "doctored" up with his great-tasting BBQ sauce that covered up the taste of the fish, thank goodness.  Canned salmon and mackerel were okay but they came with a lot of bones and I always feared chocking to death on one or more of them.  Not that I should have worried really, because Catholics had St. Blaise, the patron saint of throats (I'm not making this up).  If you were Catholic and got a fish bone stuck, no worries because St. Blaise would take care of you.

Slight problem:  The Feast of St. Blaise[1] fell in early February and Easter didn't come around March or April meaning you were without "coverage" during Lent.  Well, if that wasn't incentive to give up fish, I don't know what was and so I decided I decided that it was best to stay away from dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones and so haven't had either canned product since then.  As they say on the Food Network show, Chopped, "You left a lot of bones in your fish and for this reason, we had to 'Chop' you!"

This brings us back to and leaves us with, canned tuna. I love canned tuna and so was all giddy about my recipe selection but my husband was the opposite. The look on his face when I announced what we were having was priceless which is to same raised-eyebrow skeptical.  Well, every day can't be gourmet day in our house, now can it?

In the end, he deemed it "not bad" which I consider to be high praise and so was relieved that my recipe choice worked.  It's possible he had a bad childhood experience with the casserole in which case I can see his point, but I was the opposite.  I have fond memories of all kinds of casseroles – tuna or non-tuna - from church potlucks and other social gatherings. That said, I am not fond of eating tuna sandwiches made by others; it's my mom's very basic recipe or forget it.  I don't like finding "foreign" ingredients like pickles or chopped hard-boiled eggs in my tuna salad.  Do not.

So speaking of my mother, I have been racking my brain trying to figure out if mom ever made tuna casserole for us when my brother and I were younger, and I don't think she did.  She made tuna salad sandwiches and cold tuna pasta salad (with peas!) but I'm not remembering a casserole.  Interesting.  On the other hand, this made sense as my dad wasn't fond of casseroles and so we only had them if he was out of town for work or mom just needed to make something in a hurry which was not often.

This concludes then, my walk down Lenten Lane and Good Friday observances and fish on Fridays.  No doubt it was enlightening as all get out but let's turn our attention back to today's featured food:  Tuna Noodle Casserole.

Faithful readers of my blog know that the rule of casseroles is (generally) they must contain Cream of "X" (usually mushroom) Soup or they are not a casserole.  This is not my rule but I do tend to follow it religiously (pun intended) although there are times when exceptions must be made for the good of the country and casserole!

So brace yourselves kids:  this casserole does not contain Cream of "X" soup.  Instead, the author provides what I think is a tasty (and almost identical) substitute and that is chicken broth and heavy cream.  It also substitutes Parmesan cheese for the usual and customary cheddar cheese and that turned out fine as well.  Happily, this recipe includes peas or I wouldn't be talking to you about this casserole right now as I would not have made it! 

The only issue I had with making this dish was that you are to cook the noodles in the broth and cream mixture instead of boiling the noodles and then adding them to the other ingredients.  While the taste was fine, I thought the noodles were a tad gummy which is to say they were done but not quite.  I worried that cooking them too much longer wouldn't achieve the result I was hoping for (i.e. a more thoroughly-cooked noodle) and so decided a "tad" gummy was better than quite overdone.  You might want to consider par-boiling them first (see package directions for cooking time) so that they are almost done before adding them to the pan; adjust your cooking time accordingly from 8 minutes to something other than 8 minutes.  I might go that route if I had to do this over again.  You might want to consider doing the same with the peas as I felt they were also a little underdone.  Do note that the other time I made a recipe like this on the stovetop, I experienced similar results which makes me wonder what the secret is when it comes to stovetop cooking.

Once you get over the hurdle of cooking everything together so that the ingredients are blended (do watch for potential boil-over though) and done to taste, you move the mixture to a baking pan and cook it in the oven for another 8 minutes or so and then you are done.  What I liked about this method is that I avoided one of the frequent "fails" of casseroles and that is over-baking such that the whole thing ends up dry and unappetizing.  This mixture remained moist and creamy and the small amount of leftovers I had the next day were perfect.

This recipe calls for seasoned bread crumbs and I sort of followed the recipe below except I used "canned" bread crumbs instead of day-old bread and it worked out just fine.

Although this cookbook is not very big,  most of the recipes looked delicious so who cared?  The Table of Contents breaks out the recipes into the following categories:

  • Fun for the Whole Family.  Neat-O!
  • The Savory Gourmet
  • Meet the Lighter Side of The Casserole Queens
  • Sides that Take Front and Center
  • Rise and Shine!  Casseroles to Start the Day
  • Desserts Fit for a Queen
  • From Scratch.  Yes, You Can (includes recipes like the seasoned bread crumbs)

The Tuna Noodle Casserole recipe came from the "Fun for the Whole Family" chapter that included other interesting and fun casseroles such as a "Corn Dog Casserole," "World's Greatest Pot Pie," and "'Keep Austin Weird' Spam Casserole."  I do realize that many of you are thinking "ew" when it comes to Spam, but many of us of a certain age grew up eating it and don't think it's weird at all.  (By the way, the authors point out that "Austin" is Austin, Texas, and not Austin, Minnesota where Spam is made.)

I debated making the "Shrimply Delicious Shrimp and Grits Casserole" but we just had grits, and thought also about "Baked Four-Cheese Pasta" but decided we should do something a bit lighter – ha!  The other chapters yield a whole bunch of great-sounding recipes, including desserts, should you want to go exploring.

All in all, this was a good recipe and it ticked off most of my must-have boxes for a tuna casserole.  As previously mentioned, Andy seemed satisfied with my efforts so this was a win-win.

And that is how we observed (not really) Good Friday, 2017.

Tuna Noodle Casserole – Makes 8 servings
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup seasoned bread crumbs (recipe to follow)
1 (10-ounce) container sliced button mushrooms
1 medium onion, chopped
1 ½ teaspoons paprika
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon salt, plus more for taste
3 ½ cups chicken broth  (Ann's Noteif you want to make your own, instructions are included on p. 200.)
1 cup heavy cream
1 (8-ounce) package wide egg noodles
2 (6-ounce) cans water-packed solid white tuna, drained well and flaked
1 ½ cups frozen peas
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese (8 ounces)
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
Freshly ground pepper
For the seasoned bread crumbs (makes 3 cups)
1 loaf day-old bread (Ann's Note:  you can also use canned bread crumbs if you have them on hand.  If you use the loaf of bread, you'll be grinding them in the food processor anyway to achieve the same result.)
2 tablespoons dried thyme or oregano
2 tablespoons dried basil or parsley
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 475F.

Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large nonstick skillet set over medium-high heat.  Add the bread crumbs and toast until just golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes.  Transfer the crumbs to a small bowl and set aside.  (Ann's Note:  bread crumb instructions follow.)

Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in a medium sauté pan set over medium-high heat.  Add the mushrooms, onion, paprika, cayenne, and ½ teaspoon salt and cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms and onion are golden brown, about 8 minutes.  Stir in the broth and cream, and then add the noodles.  Increase the heat to high and cook at a vigorous simmer, stirring often, until the noodles are nearly tender and the sauce is slightly thickened, about 8 minutes.  Ann's Notes:  As I mentioned above, you might want to par-boil the noodles and the peas before adding them to the sauce to ensure they'll be done.  At 8 minutes, mine were just a bit chewy.  I also suggest that you keep your eye on the sauce as I felt like it might boil over or scorch; it didn't but better safe than sorry.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the tuna, peas, Parmesan, and parsley, and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Pour the mixture into a 9 x 13-inch casserole dish and sprinkle the bread crumbs over the top.  Bake until the edges are bubbly, about 8 minutes.

To make the seasoned bread crumbs
Ann's Note:  In the interest of time, I used canned plain bread crumbs and then added the spices accordingly.  If you follow this method, note that the authors suggest storing them in the freezer to keep them fresh longer.

Preheat oven to 300F.

Cut the bread into 1-inch cubes and pulse in a food processor to make coarse crumbs.  Spread the crumbs on a baking sheet and dry them out by baking for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring after 5 minutes.  Allow the crumbs to cool completely.

Return the dried crumbs to the food processor.  Add the thyme, basil, garlic powder, salt, and pepper, then pulse until the crumbs are finely processed and well mixed with the seasoning.

Store in an airtight container for up to six months.

[1] During mass on the Feast of St. Blaise, parishioners walked up to the front of the church as if taking Communion, except the priest blessed your throat while an alter boy held up two unlit candles that were secured together in the shape of a V.  Said unlit candles then framed your throat, warding off evil spirits or evil bones or just evil, period.  Every time I think about this ridiculous custom, I just crack up laughing.  My husband thinks its an odd stories, but my Catholic friends think it is hilarious and it is.  I mean really people.  Really.

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