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Adventures with Food: The Tuna Casserole Matrix

November 15, 2013

Tuna Casserole with BabyI should be ashamed of myself. Doing most of the cooking in our household, I pride myself on serving my family fresh, seasonal food when possible. I also have a select few culinary aversions, and the most extreme is to savory creamy sauces—Alfredo, a la king,  béchamel, hollandaise—so they rarely make it onto a menu I prepare. That said, I serve one dish to my family throughout the year that violates pretty much every rule of cooking I’ve developed: the ubiquitous, all-American tuna casserole.

This might simply be a question of origin. A cheap, easy-to-fix dish, tuna casserole was a staple of my family’s weekly menus growing up. I didn’t even know the social stigma attached to it until Roseanne Barr made it (in)famous, first by mentioning on Roseanne that it was Dan’s favorite meal, and finally on a Saturday Night Live skit in 1991 called “White Trash History Minute” where she and Chris Farley dramatize the development of the tuna casserole as a redneck family finding a can of tuna in the cupboard, borrowing some noodles from the neighbor, and charging a can of mushroom soup at the grocery store. Roseanne reveals the entire recipe to a waiting Farley: “Put ‘em in the fryin’ pan an’ boil ‘em up.”

Origins aside, the tuna casserole also appeals to the obsessive-compulsive in me. I consider the recipe to be essentially five parts, all with fungible options. Roseanne covered the first three—tuna, noodles, and creamy soup—to which I’ll also add two more, vegetables and toppings. Within this matrix, the variations are endless; I like to call it the Choose Your Own Adventure of food.

The Five Parts

We’ll start with the star of the show, tuna. One can will serve 3-4 people. I prefer chunk light tuna in olive oil as it has the strongest flavor, but the canned-in-water varieties are fine as well. Solid white albacore will work, though I find its mild flavor doesn’t really hold its own with the other flavors of the casserole.  And every now and then I’ll use fresh tuna leftover from a previous night, though it requires that you add a bit of cream or water to make up for the loss of liquid from the canned tuna, and fresh tuna negates all white trash credibility.

The other central flavor of the casserole is the creamy soup. Cream of mushroom is the most obvious choice, but I’ve now tried just about every canned creamy soup—chicken, celery, broccoli, asparagus—and they all make for subtle but noticeable variations. My personal go-to is cream of asparagus. Also, I’ve never tried this but I’ve seen recipes that use sour cream or mayonnaise.

Believe it or not, I believe the choice of pasta/noodle defines the character of an individual casserole more than any other ingredient. The pasta I’ve probably seen used most, the egg noodle, is also the one I’m least fond of. It’s far too delicate for such a robust casserole, and if you overcook them even a little bit, either in the boiling or the baking stage, the noodles get starchy and stick together into a hot mess. Rainbow rotini were usually my mother’s choice, and they do make for a colorful dish. I tend to go for the chunky pastas—farfalle, campanelli, riccioli, and the like—as they hold the sauce so nicely in their nooks and crannies. But you can use literally any pasta you’d like (or that you have sitting around on your shelf) and each will lend the casserole its own character.

My mother was the first I saw adding vegetables to the casserole, mainly to get my younger brother to eat at least a few bites of them for one meal. I now consider some sort of vegetable to be as important an ingredient as the noodles, since every type of veggie will lend its own texture and flavor to the dish. The key is to use something that doesn’t present itself too much texturally. Broccoli is probably the most oft-used choice, though I would advise to cook it thoroughly so that it’s nice and soft. Chopped spinach and grated zucchini also work well. If I’m feeling extravagant I’ll roasted some cauliflower and add that, but the flavor of the cauliflower does tend to dominate even the tuna.

As for toppings, probably the two most oft-used are bread crumbs and cheese. I tend to use them in combination. Many times I have some leftover baguette in the freezer that I’ll toast and crumble, but the good ol’ crumbs in the canister work just fine and keep with the low-budget, ready-to-use aesthetic. The pre-shredded cheese varieties work fine, though I tend to like a good pepper jack and/or parmesan. My newest fancypants cheese variety is Grana Padano, an Italian hard cheese that is similar to parmesan but subtler and sweeter with just a hint of butter; it crumbles nicely on top, or you can shave it with a vegetable peeler. And my friend Libba Bray, a Texas-raised young adult writer, has yet another topping variation that is tasty but obliterates all pretense to nutritional value: crumbled potato chips.

The Recipe

Within this matrix of ingredients, the recipe is so simple you can prepare it easily while being the sole supervisor of multiple small children (I speak from experience).

My wife recently noted, “I’ve always thought it important that you dirty every pan in the kitchen to make this.” Thus, the following directions, supplied by her, allow for you to only dirty two pans in preparation.

  1. Cook noodles and vegetables, preferably together.
  2. Dump out water, return noodles to hot pan.
  3. Dump in soup and tuna and stir with hot noodles in hot pan.
  4. Pour into casserole dish, add toppings, and bake
  5. Wash pot while casserole dish is in oven.


223904_10150275185469554_770089553_9338862_7997903_nJohn Proctor is our resident dad and writes on his experience living and raising his two children in Brooklyn. He has lived in Brooklyn since 2000, and been a father since 2009. Besides keeping company with his wife, two daughters, and chihuahua, he also writes memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His work has been published in the Diagram, Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, New York Cool, and Gotham Gazette, and he serves as editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can see more of him at his website NotThatJohnProctor.com, and he can also be reached at askadad@achildgrows.com. He’d love to hear from you!