My Tuna Surprise

It just wouldn't be Lent without the tuna noodle casserole. Growing up, my mom made this for at least a couple of Friday dinner’s each Lent. (She served frozen fish sticks some of the other meatless Fridays. Yuck!) Tuna noodle casserole is easy to make and fits perfectly somehow with the weather this time of year, the peas pointing toward spring, but supported in the gooey warmth of the egg noodles and mushroom soup. Still, after I moved from my parent'’s house, I stopped eating tuna casserole for two reasons.

First, I do not like cooking with pre-made meal starters, like Campbell'’s Mushroom Soup or Lipton Onion Soup Mix. Some people say I a’m crazy, but I think they have a strong chemical taste and have lots of salt and preservatives. I thought I might save money by cooking with these meal starters, but really they end up being more expensive than you think. When I made this last week, I paid about $2.50 for 2 cans of mushroom soup. For the same price, I could have bought fresh mushrooms and cream and butter to make my own. This is the approach they've taken at Cooking for Engineers.

And, secondly, "nothing says 50's housewife to me like tuna casserole" as Sarah at Slashfood says. Along with other mystery meats, tuna casserole has become the butt of a bad joke:
Guest: This casserole doesn'’t taste like tuna.
Cook: That's because there'’s no tuna in it.
Guest: Then why do you call it tuna surprise?
Cook: Surprise!

I made it for the first time last fall. R* and CQ were coming over for dinner and I was looking for something comforting and fast. I had a can of tuna hanging around and I ran to the store for some canned soup and noodles and voila --– tuna noodle casserole. I was a little awkward about serving it. Since they both grew up in the UK, they had never casserole casseole, though according to the BBC the UK's spin on tuna surpise mayonnaisemayonaise and red kidney beans. But, anyways, here'’s my tuna surprise: they both loved my tuna casserole. R* says this is his “second favorite” of all the dinners I make. His first fave” is my meatloaf.

Here's my recipe for tuna casserole:
Put a pot of water over to boil for the noodles and hard boil 4 eggs. When the water boils, add 1 lb egg noodles. Boil them until just short of completely done, as per the instructions on the package.

While the water is boiling, there'’s time to put together the rest of the casserole:
In a sauce pan on medium-high, mix two cans of Campbell'’s Condensed Mushroom soup with 1.5 cans full of whole milk. (I tried using ‘fancier’ canned soup and tried adding extra mushrooms. I didn'’t like these as well as the original.)
Add two cans of albacore tuna. (To me, this has a less fishy taste than the regular tuna and I like the larger chunk size)
Add one small box of frozen green peas.
Add fresh ground pepper to taste.

Mix the sauce with the noodles and layer it into a buttered casserole dish. When approximately 1/2 of the noodle mixture is in the casserole dish, quarter some of the peeled, hard boiled eggs and nestle them into the noodles. Top with the rest of the noodle mixture and nestle in the remaining quartered hardboiled eggs. Then, put a layer of breadcrumbs on top. I liked using Trader Joe'’s panko breadcrumbs for this.

Top with some pats of butter and panko breadcrumbs. Bake for about 30 minutes. If you need to speed this process and the noodle mixture is still piping hot, you can quickly broil the casserole and serve.

What's your experience with these meal starters? Do you cook with canned soup or Lipton dry soup starters?

Here's Campbells version of tuna surprise. I was suprised that they don't use hard-boiled eggs.