With the arrival of Ash Wednesday, another season of Lent begins. During these weeks, time is spent reflecting and accounting. Some people choose to give something up for Lent, but I have to admit that I always had a hard time deciding what I to go without that would amount to any real sacrifice. Instead, I found more meaning in doing more good things – donating more to causes I care about, being more patient, praying more, spending time with those who are lonely, volunteering more, and trying to take better care of those I love. How I’ll do with respect to any of these goals is hard to say, but each year I keep trying.
Lent also means, in our Catholic tradition, that we don’t eat meat on Ash Wednesday or on Fridays. I could skip meat every Friday of the year, as they used to practice in the old days, but during Lent it inspires me to think about meatless dishes that are comforting and warm. One classic dish that my mom made frequently was tuna-noodle casserole. I remember how good it tasted! It was made with cream of mushroom soup and lots of love. And while I cook with canned soup from time to time, I wanted to make a version of this casserole that incorporated some of the classic ingredients mom used, but also included some of my own thoughts.
So here is a version that has an extra richness, because instead of the soup I made my own sauce – a bechamel that was seasoned with vegetable bouillon, mushrooms and celery. I added some cheese and French fried onions, and then stuck with old fashioned egg noodles and canned albacore tuna. The end result smells (almost) as good as I remember my mom’s casserole, and each bite warms the heart, body and soul. I’m hoping making this dish puts me a step closer to my Lenten resolve of taking better care of those I love.
Tuna Noodle Casserole Deluxe
1 12-16oz package of wide egg noodles
6 TBSP unsalted butter
6 TBSP flour
3 cups milk (warmed to room temperature)
2 vegetable bouillon cubes
1 12oz can mushrooms (drained)
1 cup finely sliced fresh celery (cooked) -OR- ½ cup celery flakes covered in boiling water and steeped for a half hour
Salt and pepper to taste
3 4oz cans tuna (whatever kind you like best)
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup French fried onions
Preheat oven to 350. Cook noodles according to package direction – but cook a couple minutes short of the directed time, as the noodles will cook when the casserole bakes. Set cooked noodles aside.
In a sauce pan, melt butter over medium heat. Once melted, add flour and stir constantly until flour is absorbed and it is smooth. Cook for a minute or two and then add your milk. Continuously stir – mixture will begin to thicken as it approaches the boiling point. Once thick, reduce heat and add bouillon cubes, mushrooms and celery. If you are using celery flakes instead of fresh celery, go ahead and add a couple of tablespoons of the water that the flakes steeped in – it has a great flavor. Remove sauce from heat.
Drain tuna and flake apart. In a large bowl, put cooked noodles (if they have stuck together, quickly rinse them under hot running water), sauce, tuna, one cup of cheese and French fried onions. Gently stir to combine – make sure sauce is distributed over all the noodles. Pour into a greased casserole dish or 9x13 baking dish. Top with remaining one cup of cheese and a handful of fried onions. Cover with foil and bake in 350 degree oven for 40-45 minutes. Remove and uncover. Let stand for about five minutes and serve. Enjoy!