Not Your Mom’s Tuna Noodle Casserole (Two Ways!)

 

I don’t know about you, but we were a casserole household when I was growing up. Come to think of it, it wasn’t uncommon for me to ask after getting home from school (surely hoping to be taken by surprise), “Are we having a casserole tonight?” – words, mind you, none of my kids have tossed this way in all the years of me being their mom. Not-a-once! I remember grimacing at the sound of that blobby word “cass-errr-ole,” which prompted some serious side eye to make known my habitual distain for this category of supper. How boring. How original. How blah. A big pan of bland foods all sloshed together and baked? Why? I’ll tell you why, because casseroles are dee-lish-us, said and spelled that way mind you. Despite my teenage angst, my mom and her mom knew a thing or two about humble home cooked meals, even if they were catalyst for supper table debate because I had my heart set on something more exotic, say, Mexican food.

Now in my early 30’s, a tip toe away from 31 to be exact, casseroles just so happen to be something I not only enjoy but crave. For serious. Time plays such interesting games with tastebuds, you see. And as a mom, I suppose I now like casseroles for the same reasons my mom and her mom liked them: they are simple to make, easy to prepare ahead, are quite versatile, and require little clean up. All good things, if you ask me. Now, onto one of the staple dishes of my Midwest childhood, but with spin because I am a much different cook than the woman who raised me, and following recipes to a “T” isn’t exactly my forte. I am much more of a, “let’s see what we’ve got here and run with it”, kind of home cook, and this approach has always served me well.

I haven’t asked, but I am almost certain my mom’s recipe included a can or two of cream of mushroom soup. Probably Campbell’s. But like I said, I haven’t asked, so that might not be the case. However you like to make your tuna noodle casserole is entirely up to you, but I haven’t bought a can of factory prepared and overly salted cream soup in about a decade and I’d rather not start now. So here you have tuna noodle casserole, two ways, sans cans. The first is my traditional recipe with diary and fat. It’s crazy good, and because it’s prepared at home with wholesome quality ingredients, it’s actually not too unhealthy. This tends the case with most home-cooked meals, by the way. Not all, but most. Because when you know what is in each dish and are in control of the ingredients, chances are you won’t put a stick of butter in your mashed potatoes, but rather a pad or a drizzle of olive oil. There’s a reason why those potatoes at your favorite restaurant taste so damn good. If you don’t have dietary requirements and can indeed eat dairy, first: buy organic and whole and not low-fat, second: eat with joy. The first route below is the way I recommend you going if this sounds like home to you. Alas, if you can’t eat sour cream and if tuna just isn’t your thing, this other recipe is entirely for you! The latter is a dairy-free option, and can even be made gluten free if you swap the noodles for gluten-free ones, and vegan, if you triple the amount of mushrooms, or choose another vegetable to take its place, say green beans or sun-dried tomatoes. See, versatile indeed. Enjoy, casserole lovers.

 

Homemade Tuna Noodle Casserole 

  • 2 cans sustainably caught tuna packed in olive oil (preferably pole caught, if possible.)
  • 1 cup sour cream or plain Greek yogurt
  • 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 3 cups uncooked elbow macaroni noodles, prepared al dente  (or your favorite noodle)
  • 1 big squeeze fresh lemon juice
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 1-2 cups button mushrooms, halved or quartered
  • 1 clove garlic, minded
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese (or more if you like your casseroles cheesy!)
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

To prepare, mix tuna in oil, sour cream, whole milk, frozen peas, lemon juice, parmesan cheese, and salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl. Set aside or refrigerate, and make the softened vegetables by first sautéing the onion in olive oil with salt and pepper until they are soft enough to break with a wooden spoon. Then add the mushrooms and a little more olive oil and cook until each one has absorbed the flavoring like a little sponge, and toss in the garlic, stirring for 30 seconds or until fragrant. Burnt garlic will ruin this dish, so don’t step away from this step, literally! Turn off the heat and add the cooked vegetables to the creamy tuna mixture, and then mix in the cooked al dente noodles. I like elbow for this, but egg noodles are wonderful too. Just make sure not to cook them all the way because your casserole will be soggy and clumps together. I find that three cups of uncooked elbow noodles makes the right amount for this dish, but feel free to fiddle with it if you have another noodle you prefer. Spread out in a baking dish and top with the garlic herb bread crumb topping and follow baking instructions below.

Garlic Herb Bread Crumb Topping

  • 1/2 cup fresh herbs such as thyme, parsley and rosemary, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • sourdough bread
  • 2-3 tablespoons melted butter

In a 400º oven, toast 4-5 pieces of sourdough bread until golden brown. Quarter and add to a food processor with 1 large or two small cloves of fresh garlic, a handful of fresh parsley, and 2-3 tablespoons of melted butter. Pulse until a breadcrumb mixture is formed and spread on top of the casserole. Cover and bake casserole for 45 minutes or until bubbly, then uncover and cook for an additional 5-10 minutes or until the breadcrumbs are toasted the color of dark honey. Serves 6-8 people.

 

Dairy-Free Tuna Noodle Casserole 

  • 2 cans sustainably caught tuna packed in olive oil (preferably pole caught, if possible)
  • 1 cup cashews
  • 1 1/2 cup water
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 3 cups uncooked elbow macaroni noodles, prepared al dente (or your favorite noodle)
  • 1 squeeze fresh lemon juice
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 1-2 cups button mushrooms, halved or quartered
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup dairy-free parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

This dairy-free preparation is nearly the same except for modifications, should you choose to make them. In lieu of the sour cream sauce you will make a cashew cream by blending 1 cup of unsalted cashews with 1 1/2 cups of water. If you want your casserole to be extra creamy, add more cashews and up the water, but I made it just this way and it was light and perfect for a summer meal. Add the cashew cream and nutritional yeast as you would the sour cream and parmesan cheese in the recipe above, and bake following the instructions laid out there.

 

Cook’s Notes: The versality of this dish is what makes it a staple in our home. Below are a few fun combinations you can try by swapping out a few simple ingredients to either fit what you have on hand, or to suit your tatebuds that evening. 

  • Add salmon instead of tuna + green olives
  • Add feta instead of parmesan cheese + greek olives
  • Add lemon zest + goat cheese crumbles instead of parmesan cheese
  • Add chicken instead of tuna + green beans
  • To make vegetarian, use a variety of wild mushrooms and herbs instead of tuna and parsley
  • Add smoked trout instead of tuna + capers and red onion
  • Add asparagus and artichokes in the spring.
  • Add butternut squash in autumn.

 

There ya have it! Not your mom’s tuna noodle casserole, but mouthwatering nevertheless. I am curious, did you eat this growing up? Or was it just a Midwestern staple? And if you happen to give it a try, please do report back and let me know how you liked it! xx Amanda

 

  • Tanya

    I am pretty sure this is a Midwest “specialty”. My mom also made it frequently, but with crackers on top? Admittedly it wasn’t my favorite! But she also wasn’t a very good cook and I have found that some of the dishes I hated as a kid were just due to how she cooked it. I think I am going to try a few of your variations! Also, to up the nutritional factor, use raw cashews soaked overnight for the cashew cream.ReplyCancel

    • admin

      Tanya, ha! “Special” indeed. I believe I have had the cracker topping as well, and soggy crackers are not the fondest of my food memories. I hope you’ll find that these variations are much more satisfying! And thank you for the nut milk tip. I knew that made them softer but had no idea it contributed to their nutritional value. Very cool. xx AmandaReplyCancel

  • Alicia

    We were a casserole house too, growing up; I think because my mom hated cooking and she could throw one together and get herself out of the kitchen quickly. As a teenager, I vowed I would never make a casserole when I had my own family. Now, here I am 30 years old with a family of my own and pinterest board full of casserole recipes, and I find myself craving them. They are warm and homey, and really so good especially sans the canned soup. I never had tuna noodle growing up because my dad didn’t like tuna, but it sounds delicious and I happen to have all the ingredients on hand so there’s a good chance it’s happening tonight or tomorrow! Thank you for posting this! (Side note, I’ve also been obsessing over homemade hamburger helper recently… It’s so easy and evokes the same feelings of casserole coziness)ReplyCancel

  • Kaitlin

    Definitely a staple for me! I grew up in Michigan 🙂 Though my favorite casserole is hands down, my Grammy’s chicken casserole. It has curry in it, which really gives it a unique, yet oddly comforting, spin!ReplyCancel

    • admin

      Kaitlin, okay I need this recipe! Sounds amazing. I grew up with German potato salad, is it similar? xx AmandaReplyCancel

      • Kaitlin

        It’s not. It’s creamy! It is so, so good. You’ll love it. I’ll email it via the site! Unless you’d prefer a different email?ReplyCancel

  • Melissa

    I am a bit older than you but 80s/90s kids must all have had a childhood of casseroles! I haven’t found a tuna noodle that is satisfying to me (I too grew up with the cans of cream of whatever and also have not included that particular aspect of home cooking into my repertoire) and I am stoked to try your version. 👍🏻ReplyCancel

  • Casey

    Can’t wait to try this, I make something similar already but love this version. You can also make this paleo/whole30 friendly by using spaghetti squash, and almond flour for the breadcrumbs. It’s also delicious with chicken and broccoli and the cashew cream sauce.ReplyCancel

    • admin

      Casey, love the idea of using spaghetti squash! I always forget about that. xx AmandaReplyCancel

  • Dani

    This looks delicious and we will definitely give it a try! Also, thank you so much for praising organic, full fat dairy and sustainably caught fish – nothing beats the real deal aka real food 🌿ReplyCancel

  • Holly

    Looks yummy! Thank you for sharing 🙂

    Do you think tuna in water would be OK to use?ReplyCancel

    • admin

      Holly, most definitely! I prefer tuna packed in olive oil because I think it has better flavor, but it shouldn’t make too much of a difference! xx AmandaReplyCancel

  • Olivia

    I loved this recipe! I used almond milk and gluten free noodles and it turned out so well. Thank you!ReplyCancel

    • admin

      Olivia, lovely! Thank you for sharing 🙂 xx AmandaReplyCancel

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