In Hasty Gourmet, The Takeout writers offer reliable recipes that are dinner-party worthy with only a handful of ingredients and a minimum of effort.
Why is the tuna casserole greeted with nearly universal disdain? Was it those Welcome Back, Kotter jokes about Mrs. Kotter’s singular dish? (“Nobody puts prunes in tuna casserole.”) The first time someone decided that crumbled potato chips made an adequate topping? The fact that you can pretty much create the whole thing from items in your pantry or larder?
If you have been avoiding tuna casserole because it’s, well, tuna casserole, I am here to set you straight. Tuna casserole can be a weeknight lifesaver. In fact, the fact that you probably don’t have to go to the market to get anything to make it may be one of its best qualities. A good tuna casserole can save you from ordering takeout on a Tuesday night with about a half-hour prep time.
I’ve mentioned before that, even though I grew up in the ’70s, my mother was an anti-casserole person. I think because she grew up with them; I remember many sinister cans of deviled ham in my grandmother’s kitchen. So when I grew up and had to feed my own people, casseroles were an undiscovered wonderland. A single-dish supper? Tell me more!
To perfect my tuna casserole, I went straight to the source: A church lady cookbook. It was actually the compilation from the church of the mother of a co-worker of mine, who I’ve long ago lost touch with. The cookbook of the United Methodist Women of the Baker Memorial United Methodist Church, however, still is in near-constant rotation (there’s a corn chowder recipe in there I pull out to this day).
Unsurprisingly, the casserole section of this cookbook offers a wide variety of tuna (and other) options. It’s where I learned that not only is tuna a great casserole, it’s also open to creative interpretation, depending on your own preferences. For example, you can select from a variety of fats as a binder: mayonnaise, sour cream, cream cheese. I add about cup of diced vegetables for crunch, and you can choose your favorites such as red or green pepper, celery, scallion, etc. The only non-negotiable items are the tuna (obviously), pasta, cream of mushroom soup (don’t fight, just accept), and frozen peas. If you’re not into the frozen peas, I don’t even know what we’re doing here.
To kick the traditional tuna casserole up a notch or two, here’s my secret after years of ambitious honing: Like Martha Stewart herself, my secret is butter. I sauté those crunchy vegetables in butter and herbs to add another layer of flavor to the dish. Then (and this is the pièce de résistance of tuna casserole), I make handmade breadcrumbs (all you need is a toaster and a mixer), and sauté them in butter in the same pan. Between the breadcrumbs and the peas, no one can resist.
The other night, I was pulling this recipe together and made two casseroles: One for my family, and one to be photographed. While the casseroles were in the oven, I went off into the bedroom to be a guest on a podcast (about Columbo, naturally). When I emerged from my recording session, that casserole had been completely demolished. Even by my daughter, the family “picky” eater. I had leftover breadcrumbs for dinner.
The next day I brought in the other tuna casserole to share with the Onion, Inc. staff (pictured above). I have never had to try so hard to convince people here to taste something; these are people who make the cheap pizza buffet disappear in a matter of nanoseconds. Things I heard: “Not into tuna casserole, “ “not into tuna and mayonnaise,” “not into hot tuna,” “not into tuna.” Those brave souls who did go in gave me an overwhelming thumbs-up (although, my control group could be skewed because I was standing right there). Some staff said that they’d never even had tuna casserole before, which I chalk up to a difference in decades. And those who had had it before at their grade-school dinner tables were the ones most aligned against it; said one commenter: “Better than my mom’s (don’t tell her!)” Overall I got high marks for the crunchy topping and the bell pepper adding some needed texture to the casserole, and gratefully incorporated any suggested tweaks (more tuna!) back into the recipe.
Look: I refuse to beg. But it’s the dead of winter, which is perfect casserole weather. I’m far from a purist about this recipe: add some garlic, if that’s your jam, or some extra basil. You could even—hear me out—use canned salmon instead of tuna, or try chive cream cheese instead of mayo. But keep this dish in mind the next time you have no dinner plans and want to save yourself the pricey delivered food fee. Like me, you might learn to rely on tuna casserole as a last-minute staple in your dinner arsenal.
Church Lady Tuna Casserole
- 1/2 16 oz. box tubular pasta, like ziti or rotini, cooked
- 4 Tbsp. butter
- 1/2 cup chopped onion or shallot
- 1/2 cup chopped crunchy vegetable, like red or green pepper or celery
- 1 teas. each dried basil and oregano
- 1 can cream of mushroom soup
- 3/4 cup mayonnaise
- 1 cup frozen peas
- 1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teas. brown mustard
- 2 5 oz. cans of tuna, drained (I don’t have to remind you to use water-, not oil-packed, do I?)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
- 2 pieces of wheat toast, made into crumbs in food processor
Cook pasta according to package directions.
Sauté the onion and vegetables in 2 Tbsp. of the butter and the herbs, and set aside. Then sauté the breadcrumbs in the remaining 2 Tbsp. of butter in the same pan.
In large bowl, combine mayonnaise, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, tuna, peas, and the sautéed vegetables. Then combine with the cooked and drained pasta. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Transfer mixture into a casserole dish. Top with shredded cheese, then breadcrumbs.
Bake at 400 degrees Farenheit for 30 minutes, until the breadcrumbs brown and the casserole is heated through.