The Stuff school cafeterias and Friday dinners and potluck suppers are made of. There’s something about the rich redolence of a Tuna Casserole baking which makes the whole house smell of Home. Somebody has taken Time, and Taken Care, and has put together an old family favorite to bake whilst a fruit salad or a green vegetable is prepared and the family gathers, drawn kitchen-ward by the aromas.
It’s a comfy old Grandma of a dish, not anything like the quick-seared, ruby-centered tuna steaks of today, or the Tunafish Salad/Mold/Canapes of other years, nor even the well-remembered Ironing-Board Sandwiches of our own past. And if you’re lucky, it’s not the scritch-together of a can of tuna with a can of mushroom soup, stir in some noodles and stick it in the oven.
Tuna Casserole, or Tuna Noodle Casserole, as my Dear Daughter-in-Law calls it, is a homey dish, a thick meant-for-a-cold-night concoction which spells warmth and shaking off the snow and laying your damp gloves atop the fridge or the floor grate to dry overnight. It’s the coming in from an icy drive home into a bright house with wonderful kitchen smells and someone glad to see you.
Or it’s an easy-put-together dish for making one night and putting into the oven the next. It can range from a big bubbly casserole set down on the dining table, to a gratin dish for one or two, slid into the oven whilst relaxing, putting on some music, having a glass of wine, unwinding from the day.
An iron-cold Friday night bespoke Tuna Casserole, with its easy béchamel, the familiar old Star-Kist, the tooth-pop of the lightly-cooked peas, the gentle chew of the noodles---a childhood comfort-dish, and perfect for the season.
We had ours on trays with the Friday-night TV lineup, with Five-Cup Salad and a Kidney-bean Salad with tiny-minced sweet onion, bell pepper and celery and a slightly-sweetened mayo---two of the Things In Dishes which happened to be in the fridge. Chris is also very fond of celery and peanut butter, and his tray also happens to include six scallops I found in the freezer when I went to get the peas---I sizzled them in garlic butter, and they seemed a nice accompaniment with a mise-cup of remoulade.
2 cans water-pack Tuna---drain and save liquid
½ stick butter
3 T. flour
3 cups milk
Spoonclop of mayo
Tiny sprinkle of powdered garlic (or throw a split clove into the melting butter, and fish it out after it’s perfumed the skillet, before adding the milk)
Several grinds of the peppermill
About a cup of frozen baby green peas, thawed---just pour them out onto a plate before you start.
About half a pack of linguini
A couple of cups of crushed potato chips
While you’re making the sauce, cook the linguini al dente in salted water---it will bake further in the sauce. Drain and keep warm.
Put milk into a microwave-safe pitcher and heat until steaming; pour in the reserved liquid from tuna.
Melt the butter over medium-low heat in a large non-stick skillet and stir in the flour, preferably with a flat paddle. Stir a couple of minutes to cook flour a bit---do not let it get even pale brown. Whisk in milk, and cook to a good bubble to thicken a bit. Whisk in mayo, pepper and garlic, then stir in the tuna. Taste a spoontip before adding salt to taste---up to a teaspoon.
Stir in the peas, then the noodles, and pour into a buttered 2-quart casserole---the wider and flatter, the more chips you can put on top.
Top with the chips and bake 20 to 30 minutes, til bubbly all around the edges, and you can smell the toasty chips and the rich scent of the sauce all through the house.
Serves four to six, depending on appetites.
And, in the words of the illustrious chef Annelle Dupuy, freezes beautifully---(without the chips, of course)---you can divide it into sandwich-size Tupperwares and snug it in the freezer for cold nights and quick suppers to come.