The only reminder of your Mom’s Tuna Casserole are the Potato Chips
I announced to Andrew that we were having Tuna Casserole for dinner. His mother, his sister Lauren wrote, “made tuna casserole for all of us when we were children and she used potato chips on top”. That was the only thing that was even vaguely familiar to him. This combination of Cannellini Beans—not pasta—and high-end Tuna in Oil—not Chicken of Sea– herbs, garlic, and cheese is not, as Melissa wrote, “the classic, cream of something soup tuna casserole.” Instead, it’s a riff on a recipe for “Breton Tuna and White Bean Gratin” from a food writer called Diana Henry. Now doesn’t that up the ante? The one remaining link is the potato chip topping, which, Melissa acknowledged “puts it straight into tuna casserole territory.” But what a unique flavorful version this is. It just took Andrew a while to get over it not being just like Moms.
The earliest recipes for Tuna Casserole date back to the Pacific Northwest in 1930.
While most closely associated with the 1950s and cans of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, a Mrs. W.F.S. of Kennewick, Washington offered up her “Noodles and Tuna Fish en Casserole” in Sunset Magazine in 1930. Her recipe included mushrooms and cheese topping. But no question about it, the recipe really took off when Campbell’s introduced their soup in 1934 eliminating the laborious white sauce portion of Mrs. W.F. S’s version. No less a food authority than MFK Fisher included a noodle-less version in her 1942 tome “How to Cook a Wolf”. She offered up the following advice “condensed mushroom soup, while far from perfection, is a very present help in time of culinary trouble.”
After the War, Tuna Casserole thrived in the American Housewife’s rotation.
It had all the requisites to become a fixture on family dinner tables. Economical and time-saving, the cooking skill required was the ability to use a can opener. It is true comfort food—a creamy, savory sauce binding tuna, noodles and sometimes sweet peas and melted cheese topping those crispy potato chips. Its variations are almost limitless. For proof: the website allrecipes.com contains no less than 2500 recipes for Tuna Casserole. Today’s recipe elevates the dish with its white wine and fresh herbs. While you can make it with any canned tuna, I go for broke with specialty store Jarred tuna in olive oil. My brand of choice is Tonnino but any higher-end tuna will do. What you won’t find in Melissa Clark’s recipe is so much as a drop of Campbell’s Soup. Here is the recipe and after it two other Tuna Casseroles to try.
Gratin de Thon or Tuna-White Bean Casserole
- 1 onion, 2 shallots, 4 scallions or 2 leeks, chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Pinch of red-pepper flakes
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 6 garlic cloves, sliced
- 1 rosemary sprig (optional)
- 2 anchovy fillets (optional)
- 2 (15-ounce) cans white beans, drained and rinsed
- ½ cup white wine, or use water or broth
- ¼ cup milk
- 2 (6.7 -ounce) jars of tuna (preferably Tonnino)
- 1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs such as parsley, basil, tarragon, chives or a combination
- Zest of 1/2 lemon
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 4 to 6 tablespoons grated cheese (any kind, though Gruyère, Cheddar, Parmesan or Jarlsberg would be great)
- ½ cup potato chips, crushed
- 1 tablespoon butter, cut into small pieces
- Lemon juice, for serving
- Step 1 Heat oven to 350 degrees. In an ovenproof skillet, sauté a chopped onion (or shallots, scallions, or leeks) in olive oil over medium-high heat until soft, about 5 minutes.
- Step 2 Add red-pepper flakes, salt, and garlic cloves. Throw in the rosemary sprig, if using. Add anchovy fillets, if using. Cook for another 2 minutes, until the garlic is slightly golden and very fragrant.
- Step 3 Add the white beans and the wine. Let it simmer until the liquid evaporates and the beans are soft, about 5 minutes, then mash the beans with a potato masher or a fork. Make them as smooth or lumpy as you like. You just want to release some of their starch. Turn off the heat.
- Step 4 Now, add the milk and the tuna. If you have the oil-packed kind, add the oil. If you have the water-packed kind, drain them, and drizzle in more olive oil.
- Step 5 Mash the tuna into the beans, leaving it a little chunky. Mix in the herbs, lemon zest, and add lots of black pepper. Finally, mix in 2 to 4 tablespoons of any kind of grated cheese. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed.
- Step 6 Spread the mixture evenly in the skillet, and top it with potato chips. Scatter on more grated cheese, about another 2 tablespoons, and dot the top with little nuggets of butter.
- Step 7 Bake until the tuna mixture bubbles around the edges, 20 to 25 minutes. If you want the potato chips to get more brown, you could run the whole pan under the broiler. Finish with lemon juice.