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Kim Sunée: Retro casserole, updated and Alaskafied

  • Author: Kim Sunée
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 16, 2014

Say three simple words -- "tuna noodle casserole" -- to a group of people and you may be surprised by the passionate reactions you get. I've heard everything from "blech" and "gag, gag, gag" to "canned peas," "Mom" and "pure comfort food." Undoubtedly, this 1950s dish elicits strong opinions.

I've had my fair share of the one-pot dish at potluck suppers and community gatherings, and I actually like the idea of tuna noodle casserole, but with a few updates. Many of the traditional recipes call for canned peas, sodium-laden canned cream of mushroom soup and crushed potato chips for topping. To lighten it up, I replace the can of soup with a quick homemade sauce and then stir in a few fresh vegetables and herbs. I also often replace the tuna with some gifted home-canned wild-caught Alaskan salmon from friends. I like the addition of fresh mushrooms and zucchini, but you could use frozen peas, carrots or even spinach. This is a good make-ahead dish -- just toss it all together, cover and refrigerate (for up to two days) and bake just before serving.

Salmon noodle casserole

16 ounces short pasta, such as fusilli, gemelli or penne

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 tablespoons flour

3 1/2 to 4 cups milk

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (optional)

1/2 teaspoon ground black or white pepper

2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon olive oil

3/4 cup thinly sliced leek (about 1 medium leek) or yellow onion

2 stalks celery, finely chopped (about 1/3 cup)

1/2 cup sliced fresh mushrooms or zucchini

2 tablespoons chopped capers, rinsed and drained

1/3 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or dill

½ cup feta cheese

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

12 ounces canned salmon

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a full boil. Add pasta and stir. Bring water back to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally about 8 minutes or until tender but not mushy. Drain and set aside. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter or oil a large oven-proof casserole dish; set aside.

2. While pasta cooks, make the sauce. Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in flour until combined. Slowly whisk in 3 1/3 cups of the milk and bring mixture to a low boil. Continue whisking until mixture begins to thicken, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add salt, peppers, and garlic. If mixture is too thick, add in a bit more milk and stir. Turn off heat and set aside.

3. Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add leek, celery and mushrooms or zucchini and cook, stirring occasionally until golden. Stir in rinsed capers and fresh herbs. Add reserved pasta, feta and Parmesan cheeses, and stir to combine. Stir in 3/4 of the reserved white sauce and the salmon. Taste and add more salt or pepper as needed. Pour mixture into prepared casserole dish. Top with remaining white sauce and more cheese, if desired. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until top is golden and bubbling. Let sit 10 minutes before serving.

Kim Sunée ate and lived in Europe for 10 years before working as a food editor for Southern Living magazine and Cottage Living magazine. Her writing has appeared in Food & Wine, The Oxford American and Asian American Poetry and Writing. She is currently based in Anchorage. Her most recent cookbook is "A Mouthful of Stars." For more food and travel, visit kimsunee.com.

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