Growing up in New York, Andrew Zimmern “never once ate a casserole or hot dish.”
That all changed when the four-time James Beard Award-winning TV host and chef moved to Minnesota 20 years ago. The two standards “represent the culture here,” says Zimmern, who has become particularly fond of tuna noodle casserole.
“These were dishes that were served up in big hearty portions,” says Zimmern. “And whether you were served or helped yourself, it was communal.”
Across the Midwest, you can’t have a potluck, a barbecue or a dinner party without seeing at least one baking dish full gooey goodness. These decadent classics have long served as a kind of loving gesture in times of joy and sorrow among friends and family.
They’re typically either layered, like traditional tater tot-topped hot dish, or mixed together and baked, like tuna noodle casserole, which is traditionally a blend of condensed cream soup, canned tuna, dried egg noodles and frozen peas.
“It was a whole new food genre that I didn’t know about,” says Zimmern. “I’m one of those people that happens to love tuna, noodles and peas when it’s hot and bound in, essentially, a béchamel. I love it, make it all the time.”
But Zimmern understands that not everyone feels the same way. “When I tasted my first tuna noodle casserole, I was like, wow, if someone just spent five minutes and did this from scratch, how delicious would it be?” he says. “So that’s what I did.”
And like a true Midwesterner, he was happy to share his version of the dish (see below).
“It’s super easy, super forgiving, and it’s what we call in the food business a very tight recipe,” says Zimmern. “In other words, if someone follows the directions, they’re going to have extreme success.”
Tuna noodle casserole typically calls for a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup to pull all of its elements together, but spending a little extra time here will ensure a much better end result in both texture and flavor.
The base for Zimmern’s version is essentially a béchamel sauce—a blend of flour, butter, milk and seasonings. He also introduces more flavor by using chicken stock and bouillon powder.
“The crucial element is the butter-flour ratio and the liquid ratios, so that you have enough of a sauce that’s creamy and binding around everything,” says Zimmern.
THE TUNA & NOODLES
You can’t make tuna noodle casserole without, of course, tuna and noodles. Zimmern suggests sticking to the tried-and-true here. Use any kind of flaked, canned tuna you like or if you want to go gourmet use the imported Italian brands. “I like the Italian stuff packed in olive oil, but any will do,” says Zimmern.
The same goes for the noodles. While Zimmern’s recipe calls for egg noodles, he says: “You can swap any kind of noodle. A noodle is a noodle.”
THE SPICES & HERBS
Whether you’re making a casserole from scratch or using a recipe from the back of a soup can, it’s important not to skimp on the seasonings, even if you’re just using fresh ground pepper. Otherwise, casseroles have the tendency to fall a bit flat.
Zimmern likes to add depth to his casserole’s flavor by adding freshly ground nutmeg and a blend of fresh parsley, tarragon and dill.
“You can put any kind of herbs in there,” says Zimmern. “It works great if you have no herbs, it works great if you have just parsley or just dill or just tarragon.”
Traditionally, tuna noodle casserole is made with a bag of frozen vegetables. However, once again, you’ll get far more flavor and a much more pleasing texture if you go with fresh veggies. Zimmern likes to start by sautéing onions, carrots and celery with his mix of herbs, which he adds to the other ingredients. (He’s making use of the classic French mirepoix for the base of the dish.) As a nod to tradition, he also mixes in a bag of frozen peas.
“For me, from a satisfaction standpoint, the peas make it,” he says. “Use any vegetables you want, use any noodles you want, make it personal. That’s my upgrade to the 1950s frozen vegetable canned condensed soup version of the recipe.”
While the béchamel sauce certainly makes up for the canned cream of mushroom soup, Zimmern also adds two kinds of cheese. White cheddar melts nicely and gives each scoop a satisfying gooeyness. The grated parmesan adds a touch of nutty, savory flavor.
The genius of a casserole or a hot dish lies in the combination of textures and familiar flavors, and the topping is no exception. It adds a crunchy element to an otherwise excessively creamy concoction. Sometimes it’s crispy tater tots, other times it’s crushed potato or corn chips.
The signature garnish of tuna noodle casserole is a heavy dusting of breadcrumbs, and Zimmern, naturally, doesn’t just go for the prepackaged kind. Instead, he makes his own chunky lemon herb bread crumbs. While it sounds and looks fancy, it’s in fact incredibly easy to pull off and will make your casserole the talk of the neighborhood.
TUNA NOODLE CASSEROLE
By Andrew Zimmern
16 oz Tuna fish, drained and gently ‘crushed’ to separate
A few pinches freshly grated nutmeg
2 cups Carrots, thinly sliced
2 Celery ribs, thinly sliced
2 Medium-sized yellow onions, minced
1 pound Extra-large egg noodles
.25 cup Parsley, minced
.25 cup Tarragon, minced
.25 cup Fresh dill, minced
8 oz Frozen peas, rinsed well in hot water
4 Tbsp Flour
5 Tbsp Butter
2 cups Whole milk
.66 cup Chicken broth
2 Tbsp Wyler’s Instant Chicken Bouillon Powder
8 oz White cheddar cheese, grated
.33 cup Grated parmesan cheese
Chunky Lemon Herb Bread Crumbs*
Add the butter to a large skillet with high sides over medium heat. Barring that a 6-quart heavy pot will do.
Get a pot of water boiling on the stove as well. Add a few tablespoons of kosher salt to it.
Add the flour to the skillet with the butter and cook for several minutes.
Add the nutmeg
Stir, and add the carrot, celery, onion and herbs. Cook until glassy.
Add the broth and milk in batches, stirring until simmering
Add the bouillon powder, stirring.
Mixture should be simmering and thickened.
Add the peas, cheese and stir well to incorporate. Pull from heat, fold in the tuna, and season with salt and white pepper.
Cook the noodles about halfway to al dente and drain well.
Combine the noodles with the vegetable and tuna mixture and place in a lasagna pan.
Bake for 30 minutes at 350°degrees Fahrenheit until hot and bubbly.
Cover with the bread crumbs and serve.
*Chunky Lemon Herb Bread Crumbs
4 cups Torn day-old bread
.25 cup Parsley, chopped
.25 cup Melted butter
1 Tbsp Grated lemon zest
3 Garlic cloves, grated
Several pinches cayenne pepper
Salt & black pepper
Add all of the ingredients to a food processor and pulse to create large coarse bread crumbs. Bake on a cookie sheet at 350° for 20-25 minutes or until crisp and golden brown. Reserve for topping the casserole.