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Classic Tastes

A Defense of Tuna Casserole

Henry Hong

By Henry Hong | Posted 1/7/2009

Fellow interweb fiends may have noticed a serious spike in bacon-worship over the past several months, spawning a community of giddy hipster noobs, who suddenly blog about how awesome bacon is. An astute poster at observed that these "hiptards" have chosen bacon as the next blue-collarish thing to appropriate and shamelessly fancy up beyond all recognition, and jokes tuna noodle casserole could be next.

I ain't laughing. I really love tuna casserole, not just as a food but as a concept, and that apparently relegates me to a very cozy minority. The stigma attached to it still puzzles me, especially considering most people I know don't remember what it tastes like, or have ever actually eaten it. Growing up eating mostly Korean left me unusually susceptible to marketing--to this day, if I see a commercial for a new burger or chicken deal, I'm en route within minutes.

Tuna casserole was the most mysterious and exotic of them all. I don't remember precisely where or when I first learned of its existence, but I'm sure it was some sitcom dad or kid complaining about having it again for dinner. It seemed universally hated, but why? The problem with tuna casserole is you can't just go out and order it at a restaurant. And the odds you're going to be invited over for casserole? Slim, unless it's my place. I didn't try it until my 20s, and I had to make it myself. I vividly recall how easy it was to make--a can of tuna, a can of mushroom soup, boiled noodles, frozen peas. Conclusion: What the hell is everyone complaining about? It tastes great.

The term casserole refers both to a dish of slowly cooked food and the vessel in which it is prepared. The etymology of the term is disputed, but all theories at least agree that the root word meant a container of some sort. Foods cooked in an elementary enclosure like a mud or salt crust, or more commonly in Europe one of rice or potato paste, were early forms of casseroles, as opposed to pies, which are enclosed in pastry. The starchy crust migrated from outside of the meat, to simply a border around some prepared meat dish, and finally within it as a main ingredient, taking on its recognizable form as a one-pot meal.

Moroccan tagine, also a term that can refer to both the pot and its contents, is an example of a one-pot meal slow-cooked in a sealed or at least lidded earthenware vessel, a technique employed all over the globe. Essentially miniature ovens, these casseroles could then be subjected to low heat for extended periods of time, with little risk of boiling over, burning, or moisture loss. Low maintenance and pot consolidation reduced the amount of effort required of the food preparer.

Also, casseroles allowed cooks to use tougher, less expensive cuts of meat which need longer cooking time to become palatable. With the inclusion of starch to help extend the culinary usefulness of scarce or lesser quality meats, casseroles gained a connotation of thrift. Thus, in America, they became popular between WWI and Depression era, when casserole dishes made from durable, inexpensive materials like Pyrex glass also became more readily available.

Around the middle of the 20th-century, Campbell's began marketing their cream of mushroom soup as a quick alternative to homemade bechamel sauce, a common base for casseroles, and canned tuna, which was just beginning to gain acceptance as a consumer product, was touted for the fact that it didn't need to be cooked. Thus a tuna casserole could be made in a half hour, and a totally fabricated modern classic was born. Incidentally, if you've ever wondered why Germans would call a chocolate cake with coconut their own, it's actually a conflation of someone's name (a Baker's Chocolate worker named Samuel German who developed a mild, sweet cooking chocolate), and a homemaker's recipe that was popular in Texas. Baker's decided to print this recipe for "German's Chocolate Cake" on their packaging, and boom, another score for marketing.

Since making that first tuna casserole, I've been strangely averse to messing with it much. I tend to be something of a purist anyway, but for whatever reason I've always stayed strictly within tuna casserole orthodoxy, perhaps daring to add paprika or white pepper, but nothing game-changing like some other vegetable or even cheese. For the sake of this column though, I wanted to figure out if there is any value in applying more rigorous techniques than opening a can.

The only components that can really be "improved" are the base (canned soup) and the protein (tuna). I used a homemade bechamel with milk, mushroom stock, and sauteed fresh mushrooms. When directly compared, except for the textural difference from the mushrooms, the flavor was very, very close. The bechamel, however, benefits from seasoning tweaks more than canned soup, which seems to deaden bright added flavors like lemon zest. Fresh tuna doesn't work as well as canned, which distributes better within the casserole. But I found that canned salmon works very well, with added health benefits and the knowledge that Pacific salmon (which most canned is) is still relatively plentiful. Easy flaking fresh salmon does work well, but canned is cheaper and probably better for you (fresh is mostly farmed these days and has higher levels of PCB--a carcinogen--and less Omega 3's than its wild counterpart.)

So after lots of experimenting, I find that trusty canned condensed soup stacks up extremely well against made from scratch. I even compared baking in a covered clay vessel to standard Pyrex pan--no real difference. Salmon is a reasonable substitution, and if you can find a pasta called campanelle, use it instead of egg noodles since, while possessing similar texture and geometry, it's cheaper.

I also add a few high notes of seasoning here and there, but in the end the dish remains essentially unblemished and is better for it. And this is why I fear that the same feckless heathens who gratuitously foist upon humanity culinary aberrations such as bacon vodka, bacon sausage, and the utterly insulting bacon chocolate, will take my beloved tuna casserole and fancy--nay, fuck--it all up. I'm watching y'all.

Salmon Casserole

1 16 ounce box campanelle or bag of egg noodles
1 large (usually 14.75 oz.) can of salmon
2 cans cream of mushroom soup, or 1 can cream of mushroom and 1 can golden mushroom
1 1/2 cups milk, stock, or combination thereof
1/2 bag or 8 ounces frozen peas
1/2 cup frozen leaf or cut fresh spinach
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (fresh ground if possible)
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon fresh chopped or 1/2 teaspoon dried powdered sage
4-6 quart casserole or 9 x 14 baking pan

Boil entire package of noodles as per packet directions.
Drain noodles, and return to pot. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Add cans of soup to noodles, then rinse cans out with stock/milk and add that as well.
Add spices and stir until soup is completely blended.
Drain salmon liquid onto noodles, and pick out any bones or skin if desired (both are edible).
Break salmon into chunks and add to noodles, along with peas and spinach.
Give it a final stir to distribute salmon evenly, taking care not to break up chunks too much.
Transfer to buttered casserole or baking pan, cover (with foil if there is no lid) and bake for 20 minutes.

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