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Upscale Tuna Noodle Casserole

I get a kick out of foams, froths, sous vide, and all the other modern wonders of molecular gastronomy.

But sometimes, I just want to kick it old-school.

And it doesn’t get any more back-in-the-day nostalgic than tuna noodle casserole.

Like so many of you, I grew up on the beloved casserole made with cream of mushroom soup and canned tuna baked in the trusty ol’ Pyrex dish.

That’s why when I spied the recipe for “Campanile Tuna Noodle Casserole” in the cookbook, “New Classic Family Dinners” (Wiley), I knew I had to make it. The book is by Chef Mark Peel of Campanile, that beloved landmark restaurant in Los Angeles, which you must try if you haven’t yet.

This dish can actually be found on the menu there, and it’s always a hit with children and adults alike, Peel writes.

I can see why, because it’s a taste of childhood but with way better ingredients and punched-up flavor.

The dish gets its lovely richness from whole milk, Gruyere and Parmesan. It gets its satisfying taste in part from the genius use of the olive oil from imported canned tuna. A little gets tossed into the drained, hot pasta. A little more gets stirred into the parsley-breadcrumb topping.

The recipe calls for a small dried red chile, but I just used a pinch of dried red pepper flakes.

The result is a most wonderful dish for the ages.

Campanile Tuna Noodle Casserole

(Serves 6)

For bechamel:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/4 cup minced onion or shallot

1 small dried red chile (preferably Japanese), whole

1 small bay leaf

Kosher salt

2 1/2 cups whole milk

For casserole:

1/2 pound calamarata or elbow macaroni

2 tablespoons olive oil from tuna

Two (6-ounce) cans imported tuna packed in olive oil

4 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated (1 cup tightly packed)

3 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 1/2 cups (2 ounces) fresh bread crumbs

1 1/2 ounces Parmesan cheese, freshly grated (1/3 cup tightly packed)

Make the bechamel: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and add flour. Stir together with a wooden spoon until roux is just barely golden and has a popcorn aroma, about 5 minutes. Add onion or shallot, chile, and bay leaf and continue to cook, stirring, until onion softens slightly and the raw onion smell is gone. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt. The popcorn smell will dissipate and the roux will thicken, and then, after 2 to 3 minutes, it will loosen up.

Change from the wooden spoon to a whisk and whisk in milk all at once. Bring slowly to a simmer, whisking. Whisk continuously until sauce thickens. Use a heatproof rubber spatula to scrape the sauce from the bottom and edges of the pot so it doesn’t stick and burn. It helps to cook the bechamel in a wide pan you can tip to see the bottom to make sure the sauce is not sticking. Reduce heat and simmer gently, scraping sides and bottom of the pot from time to time, for about 15 minutes, until there is no trace of a floury taste.

Remove from heat and strain immediately, while hot, through a medium strainer into a bowl. Taste and adjust the seasoning (you will probably want to add up to 1/4 teaspoon salt); it should be well seasoned and medium thick. You can store bechamel for a few days in the refrigerator. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly over the surface to prevent a thick skin from forming. When you reheat, whisk vigorously.

Assemble the casserole: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2-quart baking dish. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add a generous tablespoon of salt. Add pasta and cook for a minute less than usual. It should be cooked through but a little more al dente or chewy than you’d like it if you were serving it right away, about 10 minutes for calamarata. Remove a ladleful of the cooking water and set aside in a bowl. Drain pasta and toss with a tablespoon of oil from the tuna in a large bowl.

Crumble tuna into the bowl with the pasta and toss together. Gently fold in the bechamel, grated Gruyere,  and 2 tablespoons parsley. If the sauce seems to coat the pasta too thickly, thin out with a small amount of pasta cooking water (2 tablespoons or a little more). Spoon into baking dish. Mix together bread crumbs, Parmesan, remaining tablespoon of  parsley, and the remaining tablespoon of olive oil from the tuna. Sprinkle over the top in an even layer.

Cover casserole with foil and bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake for another 15 minutes, until top has browned and the casserole is bubbling and hot all the way through. Remove from heat, let stand until no longer bubbling, and serve.

From “New Classic Family Dinners” by Mark Peel

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