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Persons in my household sometimes have sentimental cravings for casseroles (like tuna noodle)

And because I love said persons, I would like to make them the dish that they (occasionally) crave. But, having grown up in a tofu and carrot juice hippie household, I have a visceral reaction against buying cans of "cream of" soups and then adding mayo to re-create the flavor of memory. I'd like to figure out a way to recreate these recipes in a non-gross (to me) way. Can anyone shed light on the flavor elements that I need to be aware of in making, say, tuna noodle, which calls for cream of celery and mayo. Comforting, evocative, but not canned- is it possible?

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  1. I completely agree with you about the canned cream of.....whatever soups. I make tuna noodle casserole with a bechamel sauce, and sometimes I add cheese to the sauce. I don't really think the cream of celery adds anything to the casserole, flavor wise, but if you wanted to, you could either saute some celery prior to mixing your bechamel, or you could use celery seed in the casserole. As far as the mayo, I think that just adds fat; but if if is a textural thing, I have added fat free sour cream to some casseroles, or you could also use Greek yogurt..

    1. Try America's Test Kitchen/Cooks Country. They very often will take a recipe like this and have you make a bechamel rather than Cream of Slop soup. They revised the Green Bean Casserole, which my family DID NOT like with soup, but they loved it with a 'from scratch' sauce.

      1. Here's a turkey noodle casserole with a sauce that has chicken broth, a little white wine, some whipping cream and gruyere. http://www.recipegirl.com/2006/10/20/...

        Here's a tuna noodle casserole from epicurious. This one is a little lighter and has some milk, and a little soy sauce and sherry. It uses canned tuna but you could use fresh. I thought the comments had some good variants: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...

        Here's a low fat bechemel if you want to use something like that for the cream sauce: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/28/hea...

        And here's the recipe I've used for turkey tettrazzini from Will Owen of this list. You could do this with tuna instead:

        Ingredients
        -------------------------
        3 TB butter
        8 oz fresh mushrooms, sliced
        1 TB flour
        1 c. chicken stock
        salt, to taste
        1/4 c. cream
        1/4 c. dry sherry
        8 oz spaghetti pasta, broken in half and cooked
        2 c. turkey or chicken meat, cooked and diced
        1/2 c. parmesan cheese, shredded

        Preparation
        -------------------
        Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat and sweat the mushrooms until soft.
        Sprinkle the flour in and cook for a few minutes to remove the raw taste.
        Add the chicken stock and cream slowly, stirring constantly until the sauce starts to thicken; add salt to taste.
        Remove from the heat, add the sherry, pasta, poultry, half the cheese and stir until mixed.
        Turn into a greased baking dish, top with the remaining cheese and bake in a 375 degree F oven for 30 minutes or until browned.

        I used baby portobellos in mine and topped it with a breadcrumb/parmesan topping like the one in this recipe:

        http://simplyrecipes.com/recipes/turk...

        As it cools off, we'll be in the mood for this kind of comfort food.

        1. I'd like to add a great recipe that was in Bon Appetit for a tuna casserole -- but with gruyere and leeks... my father loved it (and he's your traditional tuna casserole kinda guy) but I also thought it was great (and I'm not a big tuna casserole person). No "cream of" soup required!

          http://www.bonappetit.com/recipes/201...

          1. I love tuna noodle and make it regularly. I use tuna packed in olive oil (well drained), mushrooms chopped an sauteed until brown. If celery was part of your flavor, slice/dice celery fine and add along with onion. Once done, add a little flour, saute and then cream and milk and whatever cheese best suit your taste and peas if that's part of the story.. Tuna goes in at the end along with whatever noodles you use and then broil with crumbs/cheese if that is your desire.

            1. The recipe as we learned it in 7th grade home-ec 50 yrs ago was a can of cream of mushroom soup, the same amount of milk, a can of tuna (they were probably 7-8 ounces back then), and a bag of egg noodles. Topped with buttered bread/cracker crumbs or crushed potato chips before baking. No mayo. I would certainly do it differently today.....the last time, many years back, included bechamel, scallion, avocado, and muenster. However, if the family members have memories of the basic version, THAT's what they'll want, not a gussied-up, improved recipe.

              6 Replies
              1. re: greygarious

                I'm with you, grey -- when I want dumpy, unassuming comfort food, I want it with a can of tuna and a can of cream of mushroom soup, not some nouveau made from scratch stuff.

                It's okay to make from-a-can comfort food. Not every meal has to reach ethereal heights, and when you're craving from-a-can casserole, it's the taste of the stuff from a can that makes it taste "right".

                1. re: sunshine842

                  I used to think Mom made tuna-noodle casserole because it was the best food on earth. By the time I learned she made it because it was fast, easy, cheap, and we liked it, I was hooked. And now Mrs. O, who grew up with a French-cooking father as family chef, is a big fan too. Over the years I have tried to "improve" it, use something besides Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup - even made my OWN cream of mushroom, at considerable expense - but it's indispensable. I've departed from Mom's recipe by adding an egg, frozen baby peas, and a topping of cheese, but that's as far as I can go and still keep what I love.

                2. re: greygarious

                  Yes, I was thinking of this caveat as I read through the thread. I see here that some have liked the "improved" version but often people want exactly what they remember. This issue comes up on CH every pre-Thanksgiving eg "my family has poor taste and I want to re-educate them". Beware of hurting their feelings. This is supposed to be an offering of love.

                  1. re: Querencia

                    and a holiday only comes once a year. It won't kill anybody to make it the "old fashioned" way -- and hopefully whatever makes one crave comfort food doesn't happen often, either.

                    1. re: sunshine842

                      Yeah, I'm not dealing with a holiday craving. No one has expressed a longing for "old fashioned" green bean casserole. I know where not to pick my battle lines ;-)

                      I'm just going to toss out there that as families grow, new members marry in, families blend, etc, a dogmatic adherence to a particular recipe can be just as excluding and patronizing to newcomers who haven't "always done it that way" as the "do you really eat THAT- let's make it better" crowd can be.

                  2. re: greygarious

                    I know what you mean -- sometimes it's the familiarity of the "old" recipe that people want.

                    That said, there is something to be said for making improvements as well. When I was a kid, my parents used to argue about canned cream-style corn. My mom had grown up with it and for her, it just wasn't the holidays without it. My dad, on the other hand, found it revolting. They reached a compromise when my dad invented his own version. His used corn kernels, actual cream and chopped bell pepper. It was entirely different, but took the place of the canned version at our dinner table with no complaints from anyone. Now I make it every Thanksgiving because for me, it wouldn't be the holidays without it.

                  3. this seems a perfect opportunity to engage said household member in evening cooking.

                    other than that, heavy cream. :)

                    1. This is another recipe that's based on an oldie that called for some form or Cream of Crap soup. This version uses mostly fresh ingredients. Darn tasty in a retro kind of way.

                      King Ranch Chicken Casserole

                      1-1/2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts
                      1/4 cup of olive oil
                      4 teaspoons of lime juice, divided
                      4 teaspoons ancho chile powder, divided
                      4 Tablespoons of butter
                      1/2 an onion, diced
                      1 red bell pepper, diced
                      1 fresh poblano, pasilla, or Anaheim pepper, diced
                      3 cloves of garlic, minced
                      2 Tablespoons of flour
                      1 teaspoon of cumin
                      1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
                      1 cup of chicken stock
                      1/2 cup of half and half
                      1-10 oz. can of Ro-Tel tomatoes (or a can of regular diced tomatoes and a 4 oz. can of diced green chiles)
                      1/3 cup of sour cream
                      1/2 cup of cilantro, chopped
                      10 corn tortillas
                      3 cups of grated pepper jack and cheddar cheeses
                      salt and pepper to taste
                      sour cream
                      cilantro
                      ripe avocado slices

                      Cook the chicken in the olive oil in a big dutch oven on medium heat, adding 2 teaspoons of lime juice, 2 teaspoons of ancho chile powder and salt to taste. When chicken is done (after about 15-20 minutes), shred it with two forks and set aside. Should yield about 3 cups.

                      Melt the butter in a saucepan on medium, and add the onions, red bell pepper and poblano pepper. Cook for 10 minutes.

                      Add the garlic, flour, cumin, cayenne pepper and 2 teaspoons of ancho chile powder, and cook for 1 minute.

                      Add the chicken broth and cook on low until mixture is thickened, a few minutes. Stir in the half-and-half and Ro-Tel cover the pot, and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

                      Uncover the pot, and add the sour cream, 2 teaspoons of lime juice and 1/4 cup of cilantro, and add salt and pepper to taste. Turn off heat.

                      Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

                      Heat up the tortillas (you can do this by adding a bit of oil on an iron skillet and then cooking the tortillas for about 30 seconds on each side, then blot them with paper towels).

                      Ladle 1/2 cup of the sauce onto the bottom of an a 9-inch square baking pan (the original recipe called for a 11 x 7 inch pan, but that overflowed on me, and in a 9 X 13 pan it came out too thin--this came closest to working for me). Layer half the tortillas along the bottom of the pan (on top of the sauce). To make sure entire pan is evenly covered, you can rip some of the tortillas into strips to fill any gaps.

                      Add half the chicken, half the remaining sauce, half the remaining cilantro and 1-1/2 cups of grated cheese. Repeat the layering, leaving the cheese layer on top.

                      Cook uncovered for 30 minutes or until brown and bubbling. Serves 6-12, depending on how big a portion you distribute. Goes great with sour cream, cilantro, and avocado on top.

                      3 Replies
                        1. re: MsMaryMc

                          Sounds like a good ski weekend meal.

                          1. re: MsMaryMc

                            I just made this for the first time last week. Instead of seasoning skinless, boneless chicken I marinated skinless, bone-in thighs in a mixture of the chile powder and lime juice for about an hour. Instead of cooking the peppers in butter in a clean pan, I sweated them in the citrusy fond from browning the chicken. The sauce had some of the reserved marinade stirred in -- make sure this gets cooked to a high enough temp so that any raw chicken juices become cooked!

                            It was excellent and everyone loved it.

                            When I do it next time I will use a couple cans of RoTel and add a middle layer of queso blanco with an egg stirred into it -- lasagna style. That will also get a sauce topping. And the whole thing will get sliced ripe olives patted into the melty cheese on top.

                            My family is still talking about it. I see this casserole in our future forever.

                          2. The recipe I've used to win over friends' cravings for tuna casserole is one on Epicurious using homemade or bought alfredo sauce. I think the lemon zest and juice is key, and I use egg noodles instead of farfalle.

                            http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...

                            1. Preparing to make tuna noodle casserole for the same reason tonight—it's a rare thing around here. The last time I made it, which was probably three or four years ago, I followed the recipe on Epicurious linked to by karykat, the one with sherry and so on. You know . . . it was fine, but really didn't taste that much better or seem much more healthful than the old recipes, and I felt kind of like a schmuck for going to all the trouble for something as basic as tuna noodle casserole. This time I'm compromising. No cream-of soups and certainly no mayo, but there will probably be sour cream involved.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Liana Krissoff

                                Update: This worked pretty well, and to me strikes a good balance between ease and old-school deliciousness, so I'll write up a condensed version below. The sour cream–milk idea comes from good old Betty Crocker. Instead of canned mushrooms and pimientos, I sautéed some fresh vegetables (I don't care for mushrooms in this, but you could chop some and sauté with the onion and whatnot until their liquid evaporates. Also, I use 2 cans of tuna to make it more protein heavy, and add blanched and chopped broccoli (just because my mom always did and because I had some leftovers; you could also add broccoli to the rest of the vegetables as you sauté them). Measurements of the vegetables are quite approximate. I had some chopped stuff in the fridge and threw it all in fairly indiscriminately.

                                Tuna Noodle Casserole

                                8 ounces medium egg noodles
                                1 tablespoon olive oil
                                1 cup diced bell peppers or mini sweets
                                1/2 cup diced celery
                                1/2 onion, diced
                                Salt and pepper
                                About 1 1/2 cups blanched chopped broccoli
                                2 (5-ounce) cans tuna, drained
                                3/4 cup milk
                                1 1/4 cups sour cream
                                2 tablespoons unsalted butter
                                About 2 slices stale bread, torn up, with crusts
                                Grated hard cheese like Parmesan (I used some crumbled-up “aged Asiago” I bought by mistake a while back; this is definitely optional)

                                Cook noodles until just barely tender (a couple minutes less than it says on the package). Put in a large bowl. Heat oil in a sauté pan and add peppers, celery, onion. Sauté with a little salt and pepper until just tender, then scrape into the bowl with noodles. Melt butter in the same pan and add bread; toss for a minute and set aside. To the noodles, add tuna, milk, sour cream, broccoli, and salt (about 1 teaspoon) and pepper to taste. Toss, put in baking dish, top with buttered bread shards and some cheese if you want. Bake at 350°F until bubbly and browned, 35 to 40 minutes.

                              2. I've never heard of putting mayonnaise in tuna noodle casserole before. It's not something I would do. But I have a friend who likes warm mayo, and I am going to tell him about it.

                                1. Thanks all- I appreciate the input. Cooks Country is a good idea KSyrah- I've had that green bean casserole you mentioned.
                                  I also think that Grey and Sunshine make a good point; one sometimes just wants un-messed- about-with comfort food. I understand that. I'm not trying to dramatically alter the recipe or the flavor. But there are a couple of factors- one, we don't typically keep those cans of soup in the pantry, so when the craving strikes, a special trip is necessitated for that one ingredient. And second, the palate has changed and matured over the years to appreciate a little "cleaner" more specific flavor than the cream of - soups have. I feel like the appeal has as much to do with the texture as the specific flavor.

                                  I'll be re-reading this thread and considering your ideas. The ATK idea of using evaporated milk for mac and cheese has sprung to mind, and I bought a knob of celeriac with the though of cooking it in the sauce and then pureeing it. I don't know that I necessarily object to the mayo but was wondering what purpose it served. I'll post back with my results and the household's reaction.

                                  1. I agree with the others; a bechamel is the way to go. My husband loves king ranch casserole, which calls for not one, but two cans of cream o' nasty soup, and I updated it to use a basic bechamel made with whole milk. It's almost as easy as opening a can.

                                    For 70s recipes that call for mayo, I use half nonfat yogurt. With most of them, you do need some mayo, but you can drastically reduce it without compromising taste.

                                    1. If you understand the nature of condensed cream soups you can replicate or improve on them. Better yet, learn about cream soups and sauces, including the so called 'mother sauces'. Some soups are basically pureed cooked vegetables (potato, pumpkin), others depend on a starch thickener, still others are largely cream.

                                      The other issue is understanding what flavors you want and how to incorporate them. You can sautee alots of mushrooms to get a strong mushroom flavored base - just don't use Portabellos with the gill if you want a white(ish) sauce. :)

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: paulj

                                        I just ran across this alternative to using condensed soups: http://www.cooks.com/rec/story/204/

                                        It still has the frankenfood ingredients of soup base or commercial bouillon but I might give it a whirl sometime. In any case, it has greatly reduced fat, sodium, calories and cost over canned soups.

                                        I am looking for a source of freeze-dried veggies I could whirl into powders for broadening the flavor profiles. I already have porcini powder but I'd love to find a source for freeze-dried tomatoes, carrots, winter squash, etc. in practical and affordable quantities.

                                        1. re: rainey

                                          Try Barry Farm. They are online. I buy dried vegetables and powders from them.

                                          1. re: greygarious

                                            Thank you for that tip. I was able to get several flavors that I've been trying to get in reasonable amounts to experiment with for years!

                                      2. Sorry, but if a member of your household is having a nostalgic craving for Tuna Noodle Casserole, don't try to do an upgrade -- it will be a failure. Cave and go the canned cream of mushroom soup and French's onion rings route. Once a year won't kill you, and your loved one will thank you. (This from a Slow Fooder Locavore who makes the old-fashioned TNC when asked.)

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: pikawicca

                                          I love Tuna Noodle, but truly cannot stomach what I had as a teenager. Now it's real mushrooms, cream and onions for the base and I don't wish for the other at all.

                                        2. oh wow..i have such amazing memories of this tuna casserole!!! Sweat down a white onion with a tiny bit of garlic and a couple cups of celery in some butter...add in 2 cans of good tuna, 2 cups of good cheddar, half cup of milk and a cup of green peas....
                                          Cook rotini pasta very al dente and add mixture to cooked pasta..cover with more shredded cheese and bake..
                                          soooo amazingly good..

                                          1. I have a British book of Italian cooking with at least 4 recipes using pasta and canned tuna. Typically they sautee onion and garlic, add chopped tomatoes, wine, olives and oregano, and cook that down. When the pasta is done, add canned tuna to the sauce, and toss with the pasta.

                                            1. This isn't exactly the answer you were looking for, but I have found that not all gross canned soup is equally gross. Husband hates mushrooms (I KNOW!), but I have tried making a modified tuna casserole with cream of celery (didn't like), cheese, cream of onion, cream of potato, etc. Finally settled on one can of cheese and one can of onion.

                                              I also use tuna from a pouch, which seems higher quality than canned; sauteed onions in butter; and topping made from fresh bread crumbs dredged in melted butter. For us it's a good, slightly less gross compromise.

                                              I've never heard of it with mayo, but the casserole-type stuff I make, I basically re-invented; like you, I didn't grow up in a casserole household, but, unlike you, mine was more old-fashioned homestyle southern, less 50s convenient/casseroley. Lots of fresh and canned produce, eggs, whole unpasteurized milk, beef and pork, no rice or pasta or barbecue or froo froo.