My version is modeled on the Stouffer's frozen variety that my mom used to "make" for me when I was a kid. It was one hot mess of a trashy dish, but I loved it. Oh, it had it all: scant bites of tuna, long, slippery overcooked noodles, and a strange half-crunchy half-soggy bread topping, all bound together by a thick, gloppy, vaguely mushroom-y mystery sauce. What's not to love?
Now, I know full well that this is one of those instances where the memory far outstrips the reality. So I wanted to recreate the comfy, safe, homey feeling of eating that nasty casserole that my mom so lovingly heated up for me, only with flavors and textures that my grown up self would appreciate. At the same time, I knew that I wanted the dish to somehow evoke the original.
The results? A smashing success. Instead of soggy bread crumbs, I used crispy fried shallots and chopped chives. For the tuna, I stuck with canned, but used the incredibly flavorful oil packed Genova brand. Rather than that gooey binder of yore, I made a bechamel-based mushroom sauce with a white wine reduction. In place of overcooked noodles, I used tiny little Hungarian eperlevel pasta that I got in Budapest. And the whole thing was topped with a sprinkle of truffle salt and a drizzle of truffle oil. Heaven.
Truffled Tuna Noodle Casserole with Crispy Shallots & Mushroom White Wine Sauce
For the sauce:
4 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 white onion, finely chopped
3 ribs celery, small dice
8 oz white mushrooms, sliced
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 cups whole milk
2 oz. all purpose flour
white pepper, to taste
For the casserole base:
2 cans oil packed tuna, drained, such as Genova or Cento
8 oz small pasta, such as Hungarian eperlevel or other small pasta, such as Italian ditalini, cooked al dente
For the topping:
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
Vegetable or canola oil, for frying
1-2 tbsp cornstarch
1 bunch chives, chopped
fresh ground black pepper, to taste
truffle salt, to taste
white truffle oil, to taste
In a sautoir over medium heat, saute the onion and celery in 2 tbsp of the butter until soft. Add the mushrooms and cook until they release their liquid. Stir, and allow to simmer until the liquid nearly evaporates. Add the wine and allow to cook until evaporated. Season lightly with salt and pepper; set aside. Meanwhile, in a saucepan, heat the remaining butter over medium heat. When it's bubbling but not browned, add the flour, reduce the heat slightly, and stir until the roux takes on a pale blonde color. Slowly incorporate the milk and whisk over medium heat until the liquid thickens. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Gently stir in the mushroom mixture and cook over medium low heat, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and cover with plastic wrap so it doesn't form a skin.
Cook the pasta in well salted water until al dente, drain, toss with just a tiny bit of butter, and combine with the tuna. Next, gently fold the sauce into the tuna/pasta combination. Don't add the sauce all at once, as you don't want your casserole to be too wet. Transfer to a 1 quart casserole, and top with a thin layer of remaining sauce. Bake in a preheated 350 F oven, uncovered, until the top is brown and bubbly.
While the casserole is baking, prepare the topping. Toss the sliced shallots in the cornstarch and shake to remove excess. In a cast iron or heavy skillet, heat oil to 250 F (use enough oil to just cover the shallots) and fry until golden brown. Remove to drain on paper towels.
When the casserole is finished, top with truffle salt, truffle oil, fresh ground pepper, the shallots, and the chopped chives.
If, like me, you grew up enjoying the sodium-packed goodness of a Stouffer's tuna noodle casserole, this will simultaneously take you back and indulge your adult palate. If you didn't grow up with frozen foods, then you can like this dish on its own merits, I promise.